It is said that political campaigns spend big money to put lies and distortions on television because they work.
We say we don't like it, but the political pros just smile. Watching the mud fly has become a kind of guilty pleasure. In the latter stages of a close race, it's the sideshow posing as the main event.
Let's face it, until the financial meltdown, we were not all that interested in the "issues." We wonder if anyone has the answer to anything. We embrace our cynicism.
According to the professional politicians, we take a NASCAR approach to choosing the man or woman who might be the leader of the Free World. I suspect people tuned in to watch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin make a fool of herself in her debate with Sen. Joe Biden. Maybe we were just suckered into watching a potential disaster - even as the Palin handlers knew they had a star, a folksy barracuda who could stay on message.
She went on from Mr. Biden to signal a spate of guilt-by-association attacks on Sen. Barack Obama. Is that required in our politics now? Does anything go?
A day or so after her debate with Mr. Biden, Mrs. Palin told a New York Times columnist that she was about to assume her pit bull persona. Here is one area where she measures up to the traditional vice presidential candidate's job description. She is willing to be Sen. John McCain's guided missile. Someone who has field dressed a moose is not put off by mud. She says Sen. Barack Obama has been "palling around" with a terrorist. She cited a story in the Times, suggesting that the newspaper has verified her charge.
Quite the opposite. The Times found no "palling around" - beyond their work to improve schools in Chicago, where both of them live.
All of this is not to say that candidates shouldn't report the transgressions of their opponents. If he or she has robbed banks - or been cozy with polluters - it's fair game. The crime arrives with distortion, half-truth and utter falsehood (repeated after it's been proved false) and guilt by association.
But this campaign may prove that a big enough issue can push through the mud. Polls show voters running from Mr. McCain and toward Mr. Obama. Big gains are forecast for Democrats in the House and Senate.
You could see the movement recently on the Eastern Shore, where Republican Anne Kimberly held a fundraiser for Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Queen Anne's County state's attorney who's running for Congress in the 1st District. Ms. Kimberly's late husband, Rogers C. B. Morton, was a Republican congressman from the Eastern Shore in the 1960s and 1970s. He was secretary of the interior under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Ms. Kimberly and her guests may not vote for Mr. Obama, but they reject Mr. Kratovil's opponent, state Sen. Andy Harris. He's running against Mr. Kratovil to replace Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who lost to Mr. Harris in the GOP primary.
"Harris ran a filthy campaign against Wayne," Ms. Kimberly said in an interview during the fundraiser at her house on the Wye River. "I was bombarded by nastiness."
Apparently it doesn't always work.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.