BY NOW, you've probably heard all about the latest journalistic stink bomb dropped on mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith:

Smith, at a college party in 1993, somehow caused unspecified injuries while fending off an apparently drunken woman who attacked him in a case of mistaken identity after a prank gone awry.

Eugene cops cited him for misdemeanor assault, and Smith paid the woman's modest medical bills and struck a deal to make the charge go away. Which it did for a very long time.

Until, that is, Willamette Week got wind of it and did what the Oregonian only tried (and failed) to do: Make it public.

It had all the trappings of a huge story. As broad-brush headlines go, it's hard to imagine anything more damning taking root in the collective minds of lackadaisical voters than "Smith Faced Assault Charge Against Woman."

And Smith, bless his penchant for taking lumps in public, called every reporter in town to a press conference where, citing privacy concerns, he declined to actually get specific about what happened in the wee hours of the "worst night" of his life nearly 20 years ago. (Although, the next day, his campaign did manage to track down and send out a court document that Smith initially speculated was lost in a long-ago fire.)

Okay. Fine. But all the same, and at risk of being accused of serving as an apologist, what the hell are we supposed to make of this?

Sure, the idea that Smith settled instead of fighting in court to clear his name—"You never know what happens when you go to a jury," he explained—doesn't sit well with me. But you can also buy the idea that a 20-year-old caught in an uninvited scuffle would strike a deal to make it go away.

It's also telling that witnesses, and not just the friend Smith brought to his presser, say Smith didn't do anything wrong. And would we care as much if Smith had hurt a burly football player instead?

Someone's done a very effective job of rummaging through Smith's personal baggage—of which, to be sure, there's an ample amount. Maybe it's the developers who want one of their own, Charlie Hales, to run city hall. Maybe it's the unseen hands of Hales' consultants, Liz Kaufman and Mark Wiener, feeding mud-pies to friendly reporters—a theory raised almost immediately this week by blogger Jack Bogdanski.

Smith, for his part, demurred when given a chance to name names: "There are powerful interests wanting to take me down. What I don't know about is any involvement of any campaign."

Because there's an even bigger question here: Should this incident—salacious, but so random—actually make a difference for anyone trying to decide which candidate will be best on policy issues?