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What ho, political junkies! Time for inside baseball.

Forget campaign finance, trade with China, health care, poverty, family values, moral elevation, education and all that jazz -- let's talk politics. Now this is starting to look like fun; this is more like it. Now we've got some action.

Bradley's gaining on Gore, Buchanan is about to jump ship and go Reform, and the Repubs are so worried about having put all their chips (not to mention $50 million) on a guy who may not be ready for prime time that they look as confused as goats on Astroturf. The media continue to dote on John McCain, and Republican women are really liking Liddy Dole. Ain't we got fun?

Of course, most of our fellow citizens regard all this as so much background noise. But for us junkies, these are palmy days.

On the Democratic side, I can attest from my own travels around the country that every serious Democrat not already signed up with Al Gore is saying, "You know, Bill Bradley could be a better candidate for us." This is sort of an unusual discussion for passionate Democrats, who are usually involved in some fratricidal battle over principle -- "I could never vote for a man who supported Bobby Kennedy over Gene McCarthy in '68."

And Bradley is looking . . . well, he's looking better than Gore, actually. According to the polls (can't be a junkie without polls), Bradley comes up sharply to really competitive against Gore when Democrats who are mad at Clinton are polled.

Well. Since "Mad at Clinton" includes 99.2 percent of the country, including his wife (the other 0.8 responded, "Who's Clinton?"), ergo, it stands to reason that Bradley would be a more attractive candidate in the general election.

But should Clinton be held against a worthy fellow like Gore? Now is no time for fairness, argue these Democrats (suddenly calculating liberals) -- let's think strongest candidate. My, my, my. The new buzz is that Bradley has gravitas. As soon as we tell people what it means, we can sell him.

Meanwhile, Buchanan -- my favorite racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic anti-Semite -- is once again proceeding to make things interesting. I'm a stonewall Jesse Ventura fan myself, and if Jesse says we populists can be for Buchanan, that's OK by me. I especially enjoyed watching Buchanan on the Sunday chats, fielding questions about "the social issues."

"I understand the Reform Party does not take positions on the social issues," said the old cultural cleanser, "and they have to understand I'm pro-life and I won't change, but that can be worked out." Flexibility is a wonderful thing. I see a great future for the Reform Party: If everybody who's tired of the Republicans and the Democrats joins it, it'll win in a walk.

I have a problem with picking Republican candidates. Republicans never seem to like the ones I do. I liked Sen. Dick Lugar in '96. I thought he'd be a good president, but he finished at, like, 2 percent. I still think he had gravitas.

McCain seems like more of a grown-up than the other Republicans, and he has a nice way of saying things so you get the impression it's what he really thinks, instead of some political blah-blah designed not to offend anyone.

But Republicans don't seem to like him, at least the Establishment kind. I think they suspect him of having a sense of humor. They keep calling him a "maverick," as though that were something bad. Of course, the Rs hold campaign finance reform against him -- with a fund-raising edge like theirs, they'd be crazy not to.

The Christian right may yet settle down and support George W. the way it's supposed to; he's been pulling it off in Texas for six years. But right now they're still restless and out there milling around Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes and my man Dan Quayle.

Perhaps the most interesting development on that side of the aisle is the utter repudiation of the Republican Revolution of '94, or at least the rhetoric of the Republican Revolution. Bill Kristol and George Will have both pronounced it dead as Pharaoh's mummy. They may be surprised to learn that George W.'s political philosophy, to the extent that it can be discerned with the naked eye, is quite, quite Gingrichian.

Well, it's festive season for us junkies, with promising developments if not actual fisticuffs ahead. Onward.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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