Politics has always been a contact sport in America.

Even Abraham Lincoln said that just to read the attacks on him, he would have to shut his office.Still, in the 1994 campaign, negative messages, groundless attacks on character, outright lying and distorted images dragged political advertising to a new low.

The cutthroat ads followed a disturbing formula.

In clipped, agitated tones, attack your opponent's character. Distort his record. Associate her with extremists or unpopular political figures. To awaken fear, work in a between-the-lines racist message. To foster suspicion, insinuate corrupt behavior.

And by all means, steer clear of substantive issues.

Examples abound. This year, one ad implied that a candidate might have lied about drug abuse. At least two candidates suggested that their opponents' political philosophies were somehow to blame for the kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old and for the lethal rampage of a foe of abortion.

Each political party charged that the other would significantly erode Social Security, Medicare and other such programs dear to the electorate.

In seeking to justify the use of these ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, campaign handlers argue that they reflect the mood of an increasingly cynical and angry electorate that responds only to negative messages.

Politicians say that once under attack they have no choice but to "go negative."

The news media are partly to blame. Instead of focusing sufficiently on issues, debate coverage looks for "winners" and too often sacrifices thoroughness for provocative sound bites.

And the media give the ads a double life. Once aired and printed, they may be rerun for political analysis and commentary in evening and weekend programs.

Obviously it is necessary to cover conflicts, personalities and personal problems. But when balance and proportion get lost, so do proper attention to issues and candidates' ability to hold office.

Although the ads may get their sponsors elected, ultimately they exact an enormous price. Confidence in government is at an all-time low. Who is the real loser? The public.

A post-election poll jointly conducted by TV Guide and "Entertainment Tonight" indicated that 75 percent of the respondents who voted in November said they were turned off by negative ads.

In an election in which only 39 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls, 58 percent of the respondents who did not vote said negative ads had influ- enced their decision to stay home.

After every national and state election in the past decade, the advertising industry, the media and many ordinary citizens have urged a return to constructive, issue-oriented campaigning - with too little success.

The primary responsibility for the integrity of ads belongs to candidates. It should not fall on broadcasters and on newspaper and magazine publishers and editors, for proposals to censor or bar ads can lead into dangerous legal territory.

Federal law requires the broadcast media to accept most political advertising from candidates. But government regulation of the content of print-media ads would be an unthinkable violation of the First Amendment.

What should be done?

At the national and state levels, both major political parties should develop a mutually acceptable standard of ethical campaign conduct and require candidates to submit to it as a condition of party support.

This standard should cover all political ads, public statements, direct-mail ads and fund-raising solicit- ations.

Adherence to the code of conduct would help create a level playing field for all candidates, allowing policy issues, not personal indiscretions, to frame the debate. Candidates violating the code would lose party support and financing.

While some publications carry critical analyses of political ads in their election coverage, most do not. Thus, the broadcasting, publishing and advertising industries should establish a joint panel to review ads and determine whether they are misleading, untruthful, unfair or indecent.

The publicized findings of these referees would be the equivalent of the ratings system for movies. By bringing their influence to bear, the panel members might dissuade unprincipled media organizations from using rejected ads.

Would such a review apparatus work in the heat of a campaign? Maybe.

Since politics is ultimately tactical, even the most cynical politicians might be persuaded - or forced - to clean up their acts.