It's the underbelly of American politics, the antithesis of debate, dialogue and getting out the vote.

In fact it's downright criminal, ranging from theft and vandalism to hate crimes and assault. And don't say it can't happen here, because it has:

? An Obama sign at Sonora's Crossroads shopping center entrance was last weekend defaced with a Swastika, the letter "N" and, below the candidate's name, the word "sucks."

? Political bumper stickers were stripped from a number of teachers' cars parked at Sonora Elementary School early this month, and several of them were keyed or scratched.

? Signs in many county locations have been reported stolen or defaced.

? A Washington Street lawyer with offices across from Tuolumne County Democratic Headquarters last week reported hearing someone bellow "Obama nigger" from a passing pickup.

To date this animosity hasn't escalated to physical violence, but it's certainly not out of the question.

Consider this: In Modesto, a volunteer preparing to distribute "Yes on 8" signs to those leaving a church service Sunday was brutally attacked and subsequently hospitalized. The assailant, who escaped with about 75 signs, is still at large.

Won't happen here? We can only hope.

The Sonora Police Department and Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office assure they will investigate incidents of theft and vandalism in their jurisdictions and District Attorney Donald Segerstrom has promised to prosecute even to the level of a hate crime if the evidence warrants.

But proving a hate crime, he warned, might not be easy. Intent and motive, for instance, must be established. But there is something virtually all of us can agree on.

"That it's an awful thing," said Segestrom.

He's right: Be it rooted in hatred, ignorance, racism or some unholy combination of the three, these malicious campaign excesses are deplorable. They are an embarrassment to all members of our community, be they Democrats, Republicans or independents.

The perpetrators, to be sure, are a small minority. And these thieves, vandals, Swastika-scrawlers and drive-by race-baiters are almost certainly not registered voters or regular participants in local board or commission meetings.

But what this fringe does affects freedoms enjoyed by the rest of us: Why put up political yard signs when they are stolen or defaced within 24 hours? Why declare your political allegiance with a bumper sticker when it gets your car keyed? And why volunteer to work for your party if all it earns you is bellowed insults?

The answer? Probably not apprehension and prosecution. As satisfying as it might be to catch one of these punks, relief would be a momentary and the dark-of-night operations would soon continue.

If anything, vigorously exercising our own rights is the right response. Remain vigilant, certainly, but put up your signs, drive off with your stickers and go door-to-door for your favorite candidate.

After all, it's the American Way. And no band of idiots should scare us into giving it up.