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'WEST WING' ENDS ITS SEASON WITH AN INTERESTING RACE

With the focus on the presidential candidacies of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), the last few weeks of "The West Wing" have been a revelation.

The episodes certainly will be a difficult act for NBC's upcoming series, "Revelations," to top when it takes over the time slot next week.

Tonight is the season finale for "The West Wing" (9 p.m., Channel 2), which has reclaimed its focus, sense of humor and edge but not its audience in television's most difficult time slot. If ratings are a barometer, many former fans are unaware that the season ends tonight.

They certainly don't realize what they've missed this season -- an inside look at how campaigns are run and what sacrifices and compromises candidates have to accept to get nominated and elected.

NBC didn't send out tonight's episode, "2,162 Votes," for review. The network summary suggests it will focus on the Democratic convention as the party attempts to nominate the successor to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) after he finishes his second term. Additionally, President Bartlet has to decide whether to risk national security and use a secret defense shuttle to rescue astronauts trapped in a space station.

Vinick, a California senator, has already wrapped up the Republican nomination and chosen a pro-life vice presidential candidate. But Santos, a Texas congressman, and Vice President Russell (Gary Cole) are engaged in a bitter fight for the Democratic nomination that threatens to undermine the party's chances of beating Vinick in the fall. The best we can hope for tonight is that Santos will emerge as Vinick's opponent and America will have the fictional choice next fall of voting for two terrific candidates who value principles over pandering.

No matter who eventually wins, "The West Wing" can't lose. Alda and Smits are two of the most likable and respected TV personalities of the last 30 years, heavyweights who give the series added clout.

Alda's character would appear to be the favorite, with Leo McGarry (John Spencer) telling the president two weeks ago after watching Vinick make a brilliant TV performance: "We got nobody who can beat him."

Hard to argue. The Democratic political consultant, Bruno Gianelli, played by University at Buffalo graduate Ron Silver, told Vinick the same thing after noting that his stands on all the key issues would resonate with 60 percent of the country. Vinick is pro-choice, anti-partial birth abortion, pro-death penalty, anti-tax, pro-environment, pro-business and pro-balanced budget. Heck, he even knows how to measure the area of a parallelogram. Vinick would seem to have only a few problems -- he isn't a regular churchgoer and his abortion stand also runs counter to the beliefs of the Republican base.

The episode dealing with those problems ran two weeks ago, "In God We Trust." Written by former Democratic staffer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., it was my favorite of the season. It was a timely episode that dealt smartly and humorously with the exulted place that religion has in presidential politics. Vinick and Bartlet ended up in the White House cafeteria discussing the issue over several different flavors of ice cream.

"Whatever happened to the separation of church and state?" asked Vinick.

"I'm afraid the Constitution doesn't say anything about the separation of church and politics," replied the church-going Bartlet.

After eating all the calories, Vinick left the meeting to proudly tell reporters that he and the President had resolved a weighty political issue. But the issue on the minds of the reporters was whether Vinick would accept an invitation, made by a religious candidate he had beaten for the GOP nomination, to go to church. He said he had too much respect for the man to use his church for political purposes.

"If you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians," said Vinick, "then you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you, but a lot of them will."

Bravo. The fictional speech aired at about the time many politicians seemed to be trying to use the tragic Terri Schiavo case for their political advantage.

Of course, only a fictional candidate like Vinick could be so honest. One presumes that Vinick's speech was softened so it wouldn't look like a direct hit on President Bush, who is believed to be a deeply religious man and has played the religious card as well as any politician in recent memory.

For many Americans, it would be comforting if we ever elected a President like Arnie Vinick, who would vow to keep religion out of politics.

In today's world, that's probably a "West Wing" fantasy. But if it ever occurs in real life, it would be a revelation.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com