What makes opponents so afraid of Barack Obama that they find it necessary to attack his family and his minister and nit-pick the details of his early childhood rather than face him squarely on the issues? Must they use fear and innuendo to undermine his credibility in the hope their own foibles and shortcomings will go unnoticed?

Senator Clinton constantly compares herself to Senator McCain in terms of experience and electability as if their credentials were the only ones worth mentioning. President Clinton made the same point recently in what has become one of the more curious political gambits of this campaign season. While it isn’t uncommon to hear speakers in various venues use the phrase “with all due respect” before they deliver scathing rebuttals of everything that has just been said, praising the opposing party’s nominee and either ignoring or denigrating a candidate from one’s own party is a strange and disrespectful form of self promotion.

No doubt the former president was counting on an audience so intellectually numb and accepting that his remarks about how much his wife and McCain love their country would somehow strike a responsive chord instead of a sour note. Did anyone on the planet need reminding that McCain served bravely in the military? Did this point, in any case, need to be made by Clinton, and was it simply an oversight that Obama was not mentioned as a love-of-country celebrant?  While it seems to be an agreed-upon strategy within the campaign, this approach is best described as the weird factor.

And while the Clintons have been able to let the whole Reverend Wright controversy wash over them in a torrent of serendipitous good fortune, the Republicans have been making it work for them in their own way. They seem to have decided on a central point, one heard repeatedly on the right, which is that, having remained in Wright’s church for twenty years, reflects badly on Obama’s judgment. This notion was expanded on Fox News by Newt Ginrich who mused about what kind of Supreme Court judges a person of such flawed abilities might select. Of course this was a ridiculous bit of nonsense, but, in its scatter-shot way, it bought the court issue into the discussion and tied it neatly into an illogical, if marketable, bundle with the judgment thing.

But, as a sign that pastorgate is wearing a little thin, there’s been dissension over at Fox TV with one member of a news team walking off the set and Chris Wallace suggesting there are other ways of defining campaign issues than by constantly running sound-byte portions of Wright’s sermons. And on Sean Hannity’s show guest Jack Kemp said he might disagree with many of Obama’s policies but he’d rather debate them than engage in “ad hominem” attacks. Nevertheless, Hannity kept on with his Obama-preacher critique to Kemp’s visible frustration.

This is not to say that the preacher issue is behind us. It will continue to fester even if its repetition may finally render its impact less formidable as the value of its initial shock wears off. And there is a distinct possibility that Democrats may find tapes of their own in which rants from the radical right could hit TV screens and provide some semblance of balance to what has been a one-sided assault.

In the end, however, it would be best if substantive discourse about the country’s future replaced inflammatory rhetoric about inflammatory rhetoric. Whatever fears opponents may have about confronting Obama on substance rather than where he attends church or what he said to his kindergarten teacher or whether or not he wears a flag pin one can only hope opponents are able to conquer those fears and act like responsible adults instead of political hacks.

For those who, like columnist Charles Krauthammer, question why Obama didn’t leave Pastor Wright’s church some might ask why Republicans didn’t leave their party upon discovering its shabby and dishonorable behavior during the Bush years and still others may wish there were more peace-sign pins in lapels.