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So much for good, clean campaigns

Scandal-fighting presidential candidate Bill Clinton might think he has problems.

And I guess by strict definition he does.

But they could be much worse: He could be Porter Downey, a candidate for North Redington Beach Town Commission.

Then he really would have problems.

As it is, all Clinton has to do is say no, he did not have an affair with Gennifer Flowers. And the scandal blows over. His wife is even helping him say that.

All he has to do is say sure, I avoided service in Vietnam, but I did it honorably and as a matter of conscience. And people respect rather than scorn him. His letter from 1969 to an ROTC colonel helps him say that.

But poor Porter Downey, he's in a no-win situation. He's damned if he says no, and double-damned if he says yes.

To start with, he has to answer the age-old trick question, the prototypical question that cannot be answered without indicting yourself.

And I had to ask it.

"Porter, do you still beat your wife?"

When Downey ran for mayor last year, copies of a police incident report suddenly appeared on windshields and bulletin boards and in any hands that would accept them. The report said in essence that police had responded to a domestic dispute between Downey and his wife, Betty, and found her with her blouse torn.

So in the heat of the mayoral campaign, most of the 841 voters in this Gulf Coast town heard that Porter Downey was a wife beater.

Downey went to a town meeting and denied it.

Betty Downey went to the same meeting and denied it.

The chief of police circulated a memo to whom it may have concerned denying that Downey had an arrest record.

And Downey lost the election to Dee Day, the incumbent.

Then he decided to run for Town Commission Seat 4 this year.

And the mayor's cat turned up missing.

Soon, word on the town's pristine streets was implying that Downey was the catnapper.

Downey says that is ridiculous.

Then, in spite of all the denials last year, a letter showed up in a number of residents' mailboxes, including Downey's: "It has come to my attention," the neatly typed letter said in a businesslike tone, "that Mr. Porter Downey is still beating his wife."

So I asked Downey about it.

Mrs. Downey went on record first, obviously tired of being the brunt of somebody's sick joke _ or campaign ploy. "Well, he never has. He has never beaten me."

Downey, who usually seems to keep the concerns of the 1,200 townspeople about property taxes and clean beaches in their proper place in a universe of priorities, decided to give a serious answer to the question.

"Sometimes, you have to take the absurd and try to turn it into something positive," he said. "I'm just letting it take its course. I think people see through it."

That wife-beater campaign, which he says may have worked last year, has backfired this time, he says.

"I'm pretty sure it defeated me last year, but I think this year it's going to elect me."

That might be an accurate assessment, but no one will ever be able to know if it did: This campaign has about as many twists and scandals as the town has residents.

Too many for the effects to be weighed by anyone short of a full-time statistician _ and psychoanalyst.

For instance, 34 percent to 41 percent of the town's voters, depending on whose figures you believe, live in a condominium that doesn't allow solicitation (one translation: door-to-door politicians). Commissioner Ann Graf said she went door to door last year _ including at the restricted condominium _ and she beat an incumbent.

Two candidates live in the condominium and have access to its residents, as long as their campaigning looks as if they are visiting neighbors. Downey doesn't live there.

Then there's the T-shirt that's popping up around town. It asks, in crude fashion, if anyone has seen the mayor's cat. (Actually, it uses a different word: p----.)

In North Redington Beach, in an election year, when common decency sometimes succumbs to the uncommon need to perform public service, isn't it heartening to see such a community effort to help the mayor find her pet?