I want to get three things out of the way up front: Eliot Spitzer violated his marriage. Eliot Spitzer is a hypocrite. And on the surface, it would appear Eliot Spitzer broke the law. (The Mann Act must be the most ironically named of laws.)

Spitzer's a bum.

Now, let's have the real conversation.

It is ridiculous that governance of the nation's third-largest state is changing hands because two consenting adults swapped sex for money instead of the conventional cosmopolitan or margarita.

When the dust settles over this brouhaha, I hope we'll be ready for a long-overdue, realistic, adult conversation about prostitution. It's time to bring the world's oldest profession aboveboard in communities willing to allow it, clean up the trade, and clamp down on the exploitation. Let government share in the revenue, but otherwise stay out of the private affairs of consenting adults. Beyond the role of the tax man, prostitution doesn't warrant the involvement of federal authorities.

Instructive is the way in which Spitzer was caught. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the financial world has been required to alert the feds when evidence arises of conduct that could be linked to terrorism. Spitzer's suspicious money transfers were the thread that led to his discovery. Some functionary or other recognized that this was a case of titillation, not terrorism, yet nevertheless committed the resources that brought about Spitzer's public crash. What a waste of time, expertise, and the people's money.

Alan Dershowitz once taught Eliot Spitzer at Harvard Law, and Spitzer worked for him as a research assistant on the Claus von Bülow case.

With regard to the investigation, Dershowitz told me that "they used 5,000 wiretaps. They intercepted 6,000 e-mails. Every hour spent on going after prostitution is an hour that could have been spent on going after terrorists and going after people who victimize.

"People say 'hypocrisy' because he was the sheriff of Wall Street. When he was the sheriff of Wall Street, he was going after people that hurt you and me and that go after our money, or people that go after us physically. There's a big difference between that and these kinds of sin crimes that we've always had on the books and mostly don't have on the books anymore."

Which is not to say that Spitzer should emerge from his escapades unscathed. But the discipline that should be meted in this case should come from within his family. It ought to get resolved the old-fashioned way - beginning with his clothes being thrown out the second-floor window of the governor's mansion.

Dershowitz also said: "You have to remember that 30 years ago, it was a crime to masturbate or fornicate or commit adultery or to engage in homosexuality, and these stupid, stupid prostitution laws are a remnant of that old approach to private morality.

"Twenty years from now, people will look back at this and say, 'What? Somebody had to resign or be indicted because he went and paid for an adult prostitute who was making $5,000 an hour?' Where's the victim here?"

Well, by my count, there are four victims here: Spitzer's wife and three teenage daughters. His need to answer to them will probably be the private equivalent of capital punishment. And private is how most of this should remain. Aside from the fact Spitzer is a prominent public figure, a case like this should not be the public's business.

(Note to reader: Go back and read the first paragraph lest you think this is a defense of Eliot Spitzer.)

There's another argument in support of legalizing prostitution. I call it the Quasimodo Theory. Some among us are never going to find companionship for a variety of reasons. And their solitary existence is accentuated by the constant barrage of sexual stimulation we see every day on television and billboards, in our mailboxes in the form of fashion catalogs, in the ring-card girls at boxing matches and halftime dancers at a Sixers game. Even in the midst of campaign coverage, it's there: in the below-the-desk shots of gloss-lipped and shiny-legged cable TV news anchors.

It can't be healthy for some people to feel the amassed pressure of such images, such expectations, and have their personal expectations go unfulfilled.

And again, some guys just won't have the opportunity to find happiness, even short-term. But who's to say they don't deserve a chance?

What this campaign for legalized prostitution lacks is someone to champion the cause. I know a well-qualified man who'll soon have time on his hands.

Michael Smerconish's column appears on Thursdays in the Daily News and on Sundays in Currents. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at http://www.mastalk.com.