Let the dirty campaigning begin. With less than three weeks to go before the US mid-term elections and an embattled Republican Party struggling to hold on to control of both the House and Senate, some of the country's more desperate candidates are resorting to desperate measures.
Republicans aren't going after their Democratic challengers much on Iraq, or the war on terror, or nuclear proliferation. Instead, members of President Bush's party are accusing their adversaries of being apologists for gay sex between adults and children.
In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, Kenneth Blackwell, went on a tear against his Democratic challenger, Ted Strickland, in their concluding televised debate this week, accusing him of cosying up to an eccentric group called the North American Man Boy Love Association, or Nambla, and associating himself with a man convicted of exposing himself to young children.
The attack almost certainly had more to do with Mr Strickland's double-digit lead in the polls than with any real substance. The convicted man, for example, was one of hundreds of campaign workers, not a close confidant of Mr Strickland's. But the smear by association with Nambla - a convoluted charge based on a congressional vote on which Mr Strickland abstained - does not appear to have been an accident, since Republican candidates have been trying it out all over the country.
In California, a struggling Republican congressman called John Doolittle has argued that since his opponent, Charlie Brown, is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and since the ACLU has in the past defended Nambla's free-speech rights, he is tainted by association. "It is astounding," Mr Doolittle said in a recent press release, "that anyone could defend a group dedicated to aiding and abetting pedophiles." (Mr Doolittle failed to mention that he once acted as a character witness for a friend convicted of sexually assaulting six of his patients.)
The Nambla charge has also been thrown at Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman who would become the next Speaker of the House if the Democrats win a majority on 7 November and who has thus become a multi-purpose pincushion for the Republicans. The maverick right-winger and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Buchanan told a television interviewer this week that Ms Pelosi had been on gay pride parades where Nambla members were also present and had thus been "marching with ".
The line of attack is remarkably brazen, given that the Republican Party is itself being rocked by a man-boy sex scandal. First, Florida congressman Mark Foley was forced to resign following the publication of predatory e-mails and instant messages he sent to teenage pages working on Capitol Hill. Then the Republican House leadership closed ranks over revelations that it had known about Mr Foley's habits for years and done nothing about them. Now a second Republican congressman, Jim Kolbe of Arizona, is under investigation for a camping trip he organised with a group of pages 10 years ago.
And these are only the latest setbacks to hit a Republican Party already mired in corruption scandals and public disillusion on an array of issues, from Iraq to the aftermath of last year's Hurricane Katrina.
The thinking, though, appears to be that if Democrats can be painted as paedophiles too, then the Foley scandal might lose some of its bite. As Mr Buchanan said of Ms Pelosi: "If she's been marching with paedophiles, is she credible standing up there saying, 'I'm shocked, shocked, that some Republican is after 17-year-old pages'?"
There is a tendency in all US election campaigns to talk about sexual morality rather than weighty matters of state. But this yearseems to mark a new low.
Nowhere has the tone gone lower than in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where a Republican candidate called Vernon Robinson has accused his opponent, incumbent congressman Brad Miller, of wanting to import homosexuals to the United States and spending tax-payer dollars on filthy scientific studies on sex.
"Instead of spending money on cancer research," a recent campaign advert ran, "Brad Miller spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men ... Brad Miller even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia. Brad Miller pays for sex, but not for body armour for our troops."
All this opprobrium stemmed from a single vote by Mr Miller on appropriations for the National Institutes of Health. In a campaign mailer, the unabashedly homophobic Mr Robinson even sought to drop hints questioning his adversary's sexuality, referring to him pointedly as "childless". Mr Miller has since pointed out that the reason he is childless is that his wife had a hysterectomy 20 years ago.
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