OKAY, WE ALL KNOW IT ain’t badminton. But does presidential-campaign politics necessarily have to be an all-out flop into the mud? Apparently so. Facebook-schmacebook, new media or not, it’s still the same old Reagan-era brick-and-mortar, sticks-and-stones strategies that desperate candidates revert to when times get tight.

For this election cycle, there’s some heavy competition to get onto the worst-tricks list. But let’s take a shot.

Best Individual Campaign Trick: Mitt Romney

This guy should have been a magician. With one fell swoop, the former Massachusetts governor made his entire public record as a reasonable, moderate centrist disappear. And presto! He’s automatically transformed into a fire-breathing, homophobic, Islamophobic, misanthropic, political Neanderthal ready to summarily deport the undocumented terrorists who have been cutting his own mansion’s lawn. Don’t try this trick at home.

Dirtiest Individual Campaign Trick: Mike Huckabee

The undisputed winner is the good Reverend Mike Huckabee, with his treacly, and quite offensive, Merry Christmas TV ad of last week. Doused in self-righteousness and feigned piety, lit ever so softly on camera as if he were the Baby Jesus himself, Huckabee wishes us all a happy holiday season and implores us to put aside mundane, earthly politics while we all take a few minutes to Adore Him. Bad enough, until we notice that the schlockmeisters who put this spot together have so artfully lit the bookcase behind Huck that it appears in the frame as a glowing, floating crucifix. Who do these guys take us for? A mindless flock of Sunday congregationers ready to gush hosannas at every platitude emitted by the Reverend and then pass the plate? Pass me the barf bag instead.

Dirtiest Overall Campaign: Hillary and Bill Clinton

The judges worked overtime trying to identify a single winner. But, alas, since her October 30 stumble on driver’s licenses and her subsequent slumping in the polls, Hillary has once again become inseparable from hubby Bill. And since he’s effectively taken over her campaign, it’s become the oiliest of all. Let us count the ways:

. Hillary and Bill might have plotted to run back-to-back White Houses going back 25 years or so, but what’s that compared to the Clinton camp’s allegation that Barack was hatching the same plan while he was in kindergarten? After the allegation was published in an official Hillary Clinton campaign press release, Bill came out to say it was all just a joke. But no one was laughing.

. Then Clinton surrogate New Hampshire power broker Danny Shaheen — husband of the former governor Jeanne Shaheen — was rolled out before the press to express his concern that Obama’s admitted drug use as a young man would be used against him by Republicans in a general-election campaign. Especially now, after a Democrat like Shaheen made it a public issue. Hillary didn’t have the good sense to even pretend to fire Shaheen. Instead, he pretended to resign.

. But wait. Just a few days later, Clinton strategy guru and pollster Mark Penn appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball to explain away and pretend to denounce the Shaheen business but nevertheless took the on-camera opportunity to mention the words cocaine and Obama twice in the same sentence. Was that a smirk or something else Penn was wiping off his sweaty upper lip?

. Enter another surrogate from the political walking dead. Former senator, failed presidential candidate and ex–Debra Winger boyfriend Bob Kerrey came out to supposedly laud Barack Obama by saying: “I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.” Kerrey did not bother to say that Obama also sounds a lot like Osama, but I think the point was made anyway. Kerrey later apologized, saying it “was the wrong moment to do it and it was insulting.” He has not yet disclosed, however, which appointed post he is seeking once Hillary is elected.

. Which brings us right to the present and the now-infamous letter from the public-employees union AFSCME. Presided over by longtime Clinton hack Gerry McEntee, the union put out a flier this week slamming Barack Obama for his health-care plan that does not mandate coverage. Obama has said that such mandates are unfair and unaffordable to the poor. By the way, AFSCME’s president has said the same exact thing in congressional testimony. But, hey, no sacrifice — including the truth — is too great on behalf of one’s candidate. Worse, the anti-Obama and implicitly pro-Clinton flier was written in such a way as to suggest that it came from the John Edwards campaign — a real twofer in dirty pool: the sliming of one candidate, in the name of another, by a third candidate hidden behind a union that publicly contradicts its own long-standing position.

Damn. And we only have 11 months left of this?

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