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Write House Speaker Harold Brubaker at Room 2304, Legislative Building, Raleigh, NC 27601, or call (919) 733-3451.The first political ads of the 1998 campaign season hit the airwaves this week. Voters should savor these early days, when the candidates are unsullied and the promises newly minted.

Soon, the first mud will be slung and all the hopeful, mature beginnings will collapse into the same old shameful mess. Intelligent discourse will give way to attack and counterattack.

Last year lawmakers nearly took a promising step toward cleaning up North Carolina's political campaigns. But sadly, some legislative leaders lacked the political will to see it through, so we're in for at least one more season of all-out dirty campaigning.

Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker took the sensible position last year that the quality of campaigns will rise if candidates are forced to take clear responsibility for their commercials.

Wicker pushed a bill that would require candidates to appear full-screen in television ads to take responsibility for them. Candidates would have to provide similar disclosure - boldly and clearly - in both radio and print ads.

Wicker's ``Stand by Your Ad' bill passed the Democrat-controlled state Senate, but it stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

When the legislature reconvenes in May, the House should approve Wicker's bill. It's the least legislators can do to begin putting some civility back into public discourse.

As things stand, it's too easy for candidates to attack one another on television and in print without the voter knowing exactly who's behind the dirt. Candidates can obscure their identities with illegible disclaimers or credit lines that flash by on the television screen before viewers can read them.

If candidates want to go negative or distort the facts, Wicker argues, they should at least have the nerve to plainly attach their names to the message and accept the consequences.

With any luck, most candidates will choose to clean up their act instead.

In the November 1996 elections, only 60 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls - the lowest percentage since records have been kept. The election followed months of distasteful attack ads.

Wicker and other public officials speculated that the low voter turnout and the negative campaigning were at least partly connected. Ugly campaigns, they reasoned, pull attention away from the issues and breed disgust and apathy among voters.

They're onto something. And it's time to do something about it.


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