THE POLITICIANS have begun paying their obsequious visits to New Hampshire, which can only mean that the 1996 election campaign already has begun with a vengeance.

Somehow, I thought we'd just had an election and thus were entitled to a little relief. But traveling on the highway the other day, I switched on the car radio and heard it all starting over again.First there were the sound bites of the candidates-to-be, spewing promises in voices coarsened by ambition.

Then came the breathless comment of the commentators.

Followed by the deeper analyses of the analysts.

Followed by the artful spinning of the spin doctors.

And I realized, with a thrill of horror, that this is what we have in store for the next - what? - year and eight months!

That's in real time. In perceived time, it will seem like eternity warmed over.

It's almost enough to make you dislike New Hampshire for allowing itself to be the early-bird showcase for all this clawing vanity.

From now until autumn - no, not this next autumn, but the one after - we will be treated to more venom and shameless self-promotion than any sensible citizenry ought to have to stomach.

My hand flew out to the "off" switch, and the radio fell blessedly silent. There was only the hum of tires, and, outside the car windows, the tranquil winter landscape sliding past.

Pastures stippled with cattle lay warm under an out-of-season sun. Crop fields, opened darkly by the plow, regathered their force as they waited for the seed. Distant water towers announced hamlets cradled in the folds of the land.

I was struck in that moment by a sense of how much seems to have endured, at least in certain parts of the country and among some of its people - the innate decency, the productive impulse, the whole range of essential values to which politicians profess devotion.

Of our losses, none has been more dramatic than the loss of civility and credibility in public discourse.

Invective, demonization of opponents, empty puffery and a talent for the unblinking lie - conduct that would disqualify an applicant for any sort of real employment - seem to have become the standard tools of those who seek after high office.

We of the news media claim to regret the brutality and cynicism of contemporary campaigns - even as we faithfully report every syllable of the nastiness, and thus play an obvious part in inciting it.

It must be that we and the politicians alike fail to appreciate just how tiresome the carnival has become.

One wonders what the next 20 months of political mud wrestling will cost in further revulsion.