If campaign ads are any indication, Joel Trella (search) is Sheriff Moonbeam, entranced with how the planets are aligned while inmates slip out of his county jail.

And Leo McGuire (search), Trella's Democratic challenger, is a hothead bully who threatens women.

In the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign, it's said truth is often the first casualty. That seems an apt description for the race for Bergen County sheriff, which grows more hostile by the day.

"This is a race the likes of which I've never seen before," said Trella, a Republican nearing the end of his first three-year term. "It certainly has gotten extraordinarily nasty."

McGuire says the barbs don't bother him. "In politics, you have to have thick skin," he said. "I've been a cop for a long, long time and I have some pretty thick skin."

McGuire is running ads on New York radio and television stations blasting Trella for billing taxpayers $11,000 for tuition for classes he took at Fairleigh Dickinson University, including astronomy and creative writing.

Bergen Republicans called on broadcasters Tuesday to stop airing the "disgusting, distorted commercials that are polluting the airwaves."

McGuire's campaign defended the ads as truthful.

What the ads don't mention is that the classes were taken in 2000, when Trella was working as a county highway safety supervisor, before he became sheriff. The classes enabled him to get into FDU's public administration master's program, and he was repaid under Bergen County's employee tuition reimbursement program.

Trella said the master's program had a science requirement, and he took the astronomy class to fulfill it. The program also had instruction on collective bargaining and contract negotiation, which he said has helped him do a better job as sheriff.

McGuire's campaign routinely refers to "a steady stream of escapes" from the jail. Since last fall, two inmates have been mistakenly released from the jail, and a third walked away from a work-release program at the jail.

Trella said he has done a good job as sheriff, saying he has removed politics from the office.

One of Trella's campaign materials reminds voters of McGuire's conduct during a newspaper interview, when he boasted of defeating a female council candidate in Oakland Borough.

"I kicked her ass last year when she ran against me," he claimed. "I destroyed her, fortunately."

A Republican campaign surrogate quickly suggested McGuire "enjoys beating up on women," and would endanger the safety of female prisoners and officers.

"That's a stretch, isn't it?" asked McGuire, a sergeant with the Ridgefield Park police department and an Oakland councilman. "That's a ludicrous charge."