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Right back where we started



And now the presidential race is down to two. Well, there are really three, but the third one is marginal. And, of course, a few are waiting in the wings -- which could bring the total back up to four, or even five. So, even though we've been at this thing for a while, we're still a long way from getting it down to one. God help us!

Let's go over it again. Many months back (it seems like another millennium), the November 2000 presidential race was slated to be a contest between Republican George W. Bush -- he of the noble lineage and deep pockets -- and Democrat Al Gore -- heir apparent to the Clinton legacy of low crimes and high stock averages. Then the fun began.

First, the Grand Old Party offered us an amusing sideshow that included some real chuckleheads. There was Steve Forbes, the bizarre reactionary, who wanted to turn the responsibility for funding the federal government over to middle-class workers, while giving his silver-spooned rich buddies an even freer ride than they're getting now. He tanked, after spending tens of millions of his daddy's legacy.

Then there was Gary Bauer, a one-trick pony (abortion), who still believes that Ronald Reagan, that amiable dunce, was the savior of the Western world. And who can forget Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah, who began all his sentences with the phrase: "I gotta tell ya!" Happily, we didn't gotta listen.

Also on the Republican side was Alan Keyes, an eloquent speaker (albeit a paranoid megalomaniac) who constantly complained he wasn't getting enough attention from the press because he's black. The truth is, he got much more attention than he deserved precisely because he is black and running for president. The incongruity made his party look inclusive, so it found him useful. That he steadfastly refuses to go away, regardless of how poorly he continues to do in primaries, is a testament to his ego, not his agenda.

Then we had all sorts of strange people popping up on the fringe, like belches from a dyspeptic body politic. Warren Beatty trolled his good looks and liberal credentials for a spell, while Donald Trump trolled his girlfriend's good looks and his own unlimited wad. Jesse Ventura just trolled. The circus was beginning to spin out of control.

Fortunately, things started getting semiserious again. John McCain took off and trounced Bush in the New Hampshire primary by 19 points, energizing voters with his maverick views and appealing biography. In the end, however, he was fated to flame out because, even though the polls gave him a better shot at beating Gore in the general election, the fools who run the GOP were determined to back the guy they gave all their money to -- regardless of whether or not he could complete a cogent sentence.

Bill Bradley tried to make it intriguing on the Democratic side, but he couldn't pull enough support away from a sitting vice president, especially one whose views were so close to his own. The fact that his energy level rarely approached that of a snail on Prozac didn't help.

And even though McCain and Bradley have not "withdrawn" unequivocally (McCain said he is "suspending" his campaign, and Bradley won't release his delegates), this is mere posturing from both losers -- a final bid for cognizance before they fade into the nether world of also-rans.

Now, round two. If you have heretofore enjoyed the absence of the shrill, high-pitched whine of neofascist Pat Buchanan (who bolted the Republican Party as they were showing him the door), note that he'll be back soon as the candidate of the dysfunctional Reform Party -- a gaggle of eccentrics that cannot explain what it stands for, or why it's even standing at all, other than as a receptacle for 12 million dollars in federal matching funds for a presidential run.

Elsewhere, it looks as if Ralph Nader may actually come down from his lofty plane this time around for an earnest stab at the presidency as the nominee of the struggling Green Party. Nader would be the only candidate in the race who could truly claim to be a reformer without having the word get stuck between fat-cat contributors and a Buddhist temple. While Buchanan will suck some of the juice from Bush's right wing, Nader can give an alternative on Gore's left.

So, where does all this leave us after hundreds of millions of dollars and untold TV hours? Right back at the beginning! The 2000 presidential race will come down to a face-off between Prince Albert and Prince George, two centrist, institutional politicians who are beholden to their party machines. The sideshow, minus whatever diversions Buchanan and Nader can offer, is over. The campaign promises to be a typical, uninspiring, negative race to the finish. One will be left. God help us!

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