BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
We don't think ''child psychology'' had been invented back when we were growing up, in the Cold War days when Ike and JFK were in the White House and everyone knew where to find the nearest fallout shelter.
A lot of American kids, though, had an outlet for their aggressions in the form of a pop-up clown.
It was a rubber, inflatable thing with some sand in the bottom, so that when you popped the clown in the nose, he would fall over and pop back up so you could give him a licking again.
A lot of kids were probably saved from being picked on by older siblings who had pop-up clowns. Why slap around your kid brother when you could duke it out with a rubber clown who never hit back and didn't bite?
It was even a useful political tool for the youth of America at times. We could pretend it was Khrushchev and slap it around any time international relations hit the boiling point. Bury us, will ya? Take that, you lousy commie.
If we were in charge of elections, we would issue free pop-up clowns to every candidate who filed petitions for public office, just so they would have some way to release their pent-up aggressive tendencies, open up their pressure valves.
Some candidates are more aggressive then others.
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the 1st District congressman, is a most agreeable fellow, most of the time. Most people who meet the affable Westwood Republican do not see him as a Raging Bull character. But, when he thinks he is under attack, he gets his back up and can be a handful.
This year, he will be running against Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, the toughest opponent he has faced since winning the seat four years ago.
Two years ago he faced Mark Longabaugh, who was far less formidable. But, in 1996, Mr. Longabaugh was not alone; the Democrats ganged up on Mr. Chabot. The AFL-CIO, determined to sink Newt Gingrich acolytes around the country, waded into the 1st District race and spent $1 million on television advertising blaming Mr. Chabot for everything but the sinking of the Titanic.
None of it worked, mainly because the AFL-CIO ran a cookie-cutter campaign, doing generic national advertising splicing in the names of local Republican congressmen. In Mr. Chabot's case, they got it horribly wrong, falsely accusing Mr. Chabot of voting for a congressional pay raise when he wasn't even in Congress at the time and, in one commercial, mispronouncing his name.
Nonetheless, Mr. Chabot was terribly bent out of shape by the attacks; he developed a severe case of the goo-goo and lashed out repeatedly at the labor bosses in Washington who were spending the money of working men and women on untruthful partisan attacks.
All the AFL-CIO ended up doing was buying Mr. Chabot $1 million worth of sympathy from 1st District voters.
Now it is 1998 and a new campaign begins. Mr. Chabot apparently enjoyed his battle with organized labor so much, he is ready to fight it again even though there is no sign of the AFL-CIO on the horizon.
Wednesday, as he announced his candidacy before a roomful of supporters, Mr. Chabot warned the GOP faithful that ''there's every indication that the liberal elites in Washington are planning to gear up their same old smear attacks.''
''Get ready for all those false attacks,'' Mr. Chabot said.
Mr. Chabot's words got the blood running warm in the veins of the GOP faithful, but those who were able to get enough oxygen into their heads realized that there really aren't any signs out there that Mr. Chabot will face the kind of assault he did two years ago.
The Democrats will see to it that Ms. Qualls has plenty of campaign money, but if the AFL-CIO were going to chip in, we'd have seen them by now.
Mr. Chabot, it seems, has decided to re-fight a battle he has already won. So expect he'll keep whacking that rubber clown because it feels so good.
And why not? That clown always comes back for more.
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.