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Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the most thoughtful member of the Cabinet, was recruited for spin at the Hartford debate and trashed his new occupation. He found it "a bit demeaning." He put his finger on the problem.

"How can anyone trust what comes out of your mouth when you've been formally declared a spinner? By definition, everything is assumed to be inauthentic."

The secretary was not included in the merry band of pitchmen rounded up for duty tonight in San Diego. Detachment is not much treasured in spindom.

The fact that he is right won't stop the spinners and the spun from their accustomed rendezvous, which is now cemented into post-debate procedures. Certain stars will be sought out. Leon Panetta is a stellar performer for the president. He just doesn't give the line. He will muse about enemy strategy for the record, which is a big deal for reporters not used to chatting with the White House chief of staff.

The Democrats have taken a giant step in spinning. They pioneered the little signs that proclaim the identity of the spinner. The most prominent spinners do not need the sign-bearers, but they get them because a sign-bearer has become a status symbol.

Democrats have lately gotten interested in the minutiae where Republicans have always excelled. Take balloons, which Republicans had made an art and a science. Now the Democrats have gotten a grip on them, and they are as adept at the convention drop as a parachuter's jump-master. The confetti-balloon dump at the Chicago convention was outstanding.

Republicans have shown they are not licked yet by introducing daytime fireworks at Bob Dole rallies, an odd phenomenon that is more heard than seen. Roman candles at high noon need more work.

At the debates, the site of the spurious exchanges is now called "spin alley." "Massage parlor" would be more appropriate. The operators struggling with 90 minutes of complex arguments, inconclusive clashes and blatant misrepresentation try to wrestle the mass into some kind of presentable shape. They pound and knead and stroke. They present their clients with conclusions.

To reporters who have 15 minutes to make sense of the whole mess, it may not be the most wholesome fare -- in fact, it is junk food -- but when you are starving, you can dispense with the Grey Poupon.

The whole enterprise is predicated on the laziness of journalists. They crave summaries, analyses, quotations. They sneer at the massage parlor, and depend on it.

Sometimes, they realize they are being taken in. After the Gore-Kemp pas de deux in St. Petersburg, Fla., Andrew Cuomo of the Department of Housing and Urban Development was speaking the mantra of the masseur: "He did what he had to do," he said solemnly of Albert Gore.

Cuomo went on to say that Gore had made a clean sweep of the issues and shown himself to be a fine fellow. The reporters wrote everything down carefully until they remembered that Cuomo was head coach of the squad of trainers who had prepared Gore for his night's work. Praising Gore, Cuomo was praising himself.

John Buckley, communications director of the Dole-Kemp campaign, concedes that the Republicans had to follow Democrats on signs.

"We thought of sedan chairs for the spinners as a good move," he says. "How would it be if we came into the spin room with six governors in sedan chairs on our shoulders?

"By the way, we think that governors are better than Cabinet officers." (The Democrats have been fielding five at a crack.)

"A governor can tell you what's going on in a big state with a double-digit spread, and it's much more interesting than what's going on in the Cabinet."

Buckley rates the president's shadow, George Stephanopoulos, as the Democrats' chief attraction. "Where he is, the cameras are; he is the embodiment of the Clinton administration as far as we are concerned."

Stephanopoulos routinely briefs the spinners before they step into the spotlight, telling them exactly how they are to give the latest version of "he did just what he had to do."

John Buckley says his team will field a new star, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who played Bill Clinton in rehearsals with Bob Dole. He will be mobbed. Reporters devour morsels from the practice sessions. George Mitchell, who played Dole for Clinton, was said to have chewed up the president.

Republican gloom had settled in before the Gore-Kemp debate ever started. Word seeped out of the rehearsal hall that Sen. Judd Gregg, a spare, sour New Hampshire man, had won the debate over Kemp. No sign is too trifling in these days.

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