It's not exactly mudslinging or rock throwing; maybe this behavior is on the order of kicking dirt.

Candidates in northern Utah's 1st Congressional District race have thrown the first gentle punches and awakened a sleepy contest between incumbent Republican Congressman Jim Hansen and newcomer Steve Beierlein, the Democratic challenger.Political scientists say it's a rite of fall passage in election years. Sometime around Labor Day candidates figure it's time to get the attention of summer-weary voters. And that's when things start to heat up, said Rod Julander, a political science professor at Weber State University in Ogden.

In the race between Hansen, a GOP fixture in northern Utah politics for nearly two decades and Beierlein, a financial consultant with Smith Barney, one point of dispute is a series of satirical political cartoons titled: "Stop Hansen's Whine/

Elect Steve Beierlein."

Hansen's camp says the cartoons - caricatures of the congressman and his stands on various issues - are personal attacks.

And the campaign climate apparently has heated up in recent weeks.

Last weekend, a female volunteer for the Beierlein campaign says she was grabbed, shaken and verbally assaulted by a man while handing out Beierlein campaign literature at the Peach Days Parade in Brigham City.

The man apparently believed Beierlein is running a campaign of rumor and personal attacks against Hansen, and he shouted accusations along this vein at the woman volunteer, who was visibly shaken, but not physically hurt.

"This is unbelievable," Beierlein said in a statement after the incident. "We have not and will not run a campaign on personal attacks. We've used some caricatures to poke fun . . . I have questioned his votes,, I've criticized his extreme partisanship, but I have never, never attacked him personally."

In hashing out complaints about the cartoons, a side issue has emerged with comments critical of Beierlein for campaigning with his wife, Sandy, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

Utah Republican Party leaders have entered the fray.

In mid-August, Beierlein received a letter from Spencer Stokes, the party's executive director, who admonished the candidate for distributing the cartoons.

"Steve, I expected better of you during a campaign," wrote Stokes, adding he was personally offended by such a personal attack on Hansen's integrity. "I hope your campaign eventually finds the high road. I was actually taken back by what I think is a very negative and distasteful type of campaign tactic. I found the cartoon characters mean-spirited, which I thought you would be above."

But there is nothing wrong with parodies and caricature, which have been used in American political campaigns since before the Revolution, Beierlein wrote back to Stokes.

"The cartoons are intended to poke good-natured fun at (Hansen's) positions on issues of importance to Utah's families. As political satire, I will agree that some of Jim's supporters may not find them funny, but they are certainly not mean."

One cartoon shows Hansen leaning on a "For Sale" sign near Utah's famous Delicate Arch.

In another, the 18-year veteran congressman is drawn with a Rip Van Winkle-length beard cooling his heels in cobwebs and dust under the heading: "on term limits."

In a third, Hansen is riding a defense-industry missile past a schoolboy, and shouting for the young man to get out of the way. This represents Hansen's views "on education," according to the cartoon.

Beierlein had the cartoons printed on white paper sacks and handed them out at the state Democratic convention. He had some left over, so took them to the Davis County Fair recently and passed out a few more.

Some of Hansen's staff admit getting a chuckle from the cartoons but add they've got a "nasty edge" to them.

"It's no big deal to us," said Steve Peterson, state director for Hansen. "Spencer Stokes took it upon himself to do this. We did not put him up to this."

But satire is a pretty good way for a candidate to go on the offensive, said Julander, who is also the vice-chairman of the state Democratic Party. "When people are chuckling, they're not getting mad at the person who sent out the information."

"You've got to be stretching things a bit to call this a personal attack," Beierlein said this week. "Give me a break."

The only negative and distasteful comments made in the campaign have come from Hansen and his paid staff, Beierlein told Stokes. "I'm disappointed by their repeated attempts to condemn my decision to seek public office based on the status of my wife's health."

"The implication that by running I am somehow being negligent as a husband is beneath contempt."

Beierlein was referring in part to a letter to the editor submitted to Ogden's Standard Examiner Dec. 30, 1997. The letter, written by Nancee Blockinger, Hansen's chief of staff, denounced rumors Hansen was considering retirement.

The only issue which would voluntarily end his tenure, Blockinger wrote, is if something happened to Hansen's health or to the health of his wife.

"Mrs. Hansen recently had a painful knee replacement, and the congressman has stated he will not sacrifice his wife's health on the alter of political ambition should she have further serious medical prob-lems."

In a recent statement, Beierlein said he and his wife have been traveling the district talking with people about what they expect from their representative in Congress, "something Jim Hansen apparently doesn't understand," he said.

"He would rather discuss imagined attacks than attacking the problems facing Utah families."