No candidate this year--with the notable exception of Evan Mecham--has been the target of more questions about his integrity, honor and past actions than Grant Woods, Republican candidate for attorney general. Each time Woods begins to build a substantial lead in the polls, another face from his past surfaces to hurl crippling allegations. The most recent was an accusation by disgraced developer Barry Wolfson that Woods extorted a legal settlement from him in 1986. Shortly after the Wolfson mud was slung, Woods dropped eight points in the polls.

Staton, while denying that her campaign is dishing the dirt, argues that where there's smoke, there's fire. "He's been compromised with these dealings," she commented recently.

With fully half the voters still uncommitted, questions about Woods' character could sink him in next Tuesday's election. More than anything else, it is the recurrence of doubt that is damaging, for the harder one examines the individual charges leveled against Woods, the more apparent it becomes that there is nothing more to them than smoke. Smoke and mirrors.

THE FIRST JOINT APPEARANCE by Woods and Staton following the primary, at Arizona State University's College of Law, was so bitter it left audience members gagging in disgust. The candidates muzzled their sniping in subsequent appearances, but the opener signaled that personal attacks--not issues--might dominate the campaign if the odds soured for either candidate.

And that's exactly what has happened, with Woods becoming the target of charges planted by backers of Staton, who is trailing in the polls by nearly two to one. Woods had already faced ugly charges in the primary, when rival David Eisenstein claimed that Woods had ripped off elderly investors in a Mesa development and had done business with a savings-and-loan racketeer named Mario Renda.

Days before the September primary, former investment partner Marion Widger, in conjunction with Eisenstein, called a press conference to accuse Woods of suckering innocent people into investing in an office building that later went bankrupt.

Eisenstein also purported to show that Woods and his father, millionaire Mesa developer Joe Woods, had gone into a hotel partnership with Renda, one of the most notorious figures in the multibillion dollar failure of the savings-and-loan industry. Renda is now serving time in a California prison for laundering mob profits through small S&Ls, which were then looted through huge loan defaults by Renda and his cronies.

Woods, who had built a substantial lead in the polls, denounced these accusations as distortions but barely made it past the primary. "There's no question that they hurt me," Woods says. "I think the only reason I survived was because the stories hadn't reached the out-counties by election day."

Eisenstein's information was supplied by a supporter of former Governor Evan Mecham, who made an unsuccessful comeback bid against Fife Symington. After losing the primary, Eisenstein called Woods to discuss the smear. "I now know the charges to be untrue," he says.

But that hasn't laid them to rest. Now backers of Democrat Georgia Staton are peddling the claims, saying Woods slid out from under them in the primary, and should be held accountable. "The dailies blew it," one Staton supporter tells New Times. "There's a helluva story there and they missed it." Staton did not return phone calls from New Times.

In the September press conference, Widger and several of his friends claimed they had been lured into investing in a partnership headed by Joe Woods, which owned a successful office development in downtown Mesa. Once they had invested their money in it, they claim they received no interest payments and their share was "squeezed down" as new investors were brought in.

So what does this have to do with Grant Woods, candidate for attorney general? Not much, says his ex-wife, attorney Barbara Ross. "Grant had invested some of his own money in the partnership, but he didn't handle any of the [partnership's] business," Ross says. "His expertise is as a litigator and in the area of public policy. I was the firm's business specialist and was legal counsel to the [development] partnership."

Shortly before the primary, the Attorney General's Office issued a legal opinion saying Woods should have reported his involvement in the project as a financial obligation, and Woods filed an amended campaign finance statement. Woods' opponents accused him of trying to evade responsibility by not reporting it, but Ross strongly disagrees. "He would never intentionally ignore an obligation," she says.

Ross considers Widger's claims so outrageous and "legally actionable" she demanded a retraction the day after he made them public. "I find your statements . . . false and defamatory on their face," Ross said in a September 5 letter to Widger. (To date, Widger has not complied with the retraction demand, nor has Ross initiated legal proceedings.)