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SOME POLITICANS JUST AREN'T READY FOR PRIME TIME

Some politicians learn, some never do.

Look at Al Gore. He learned. He not only knows there is no politics without television, he knows what that means. He went into the Democratic National Convention with one big problem: "How do I come out of this with an amicable professional divorce from Bill Clinton and a snazzier reputation than I now have? How do I get clean and then convince America that I'm not a plank of cedar in the middle of their TV screens?"

The answer was one of the great TV answers of our time: the kiss, that decidedly non-erotic but passionate lip-lock with Tipper that the late-night gag-racers are still getting mileage out of. Some day soon, when the election is history and the Campaign of 2000 insider books have all been written, we'll know just how scripted a moment it was.

I suspect it was both scripted and utterly spontaneous -- that the game plan called for candidate Gore, the wonk with the beautiful family, to kiss his photographer wife after she presented the convention with the Gore family album. Maybe he was even trying a little to prove that, unlike some presidents we could name, he really "digs his wife" (as cable TV natterer Chris Matthews put it).

But anyone -- male or female -- whoever survived a decade or more of marriage could recognize that kiss -- that "we made it honey, we finally made it" expression of oneness with and gratitude to the woman who, of the two, has the family's hardest job. (The political wife being one of the most abused, underestimated and least-rewarded jobs that our culture has ever concocted.)

That's what Gore, in all the post-kiss interviews, says it was -- most recently on a jaunty, decidedly non-cedar stint on Letterman.

Oh yes. It was also, by the way, a stroke of genius to position himself with all-important women voters, an audacious gesture worth more than 20 years of fatuous family values speeches. It wasn't exactly the high road to get where he wanted to go, but it sure got him there in a hurry. He's been luxuriating ever since, while his opponent has been mispronouncing easy words, getting in his own way at every opportunity and proving that not every Yale education was worth the money.

Then there's Rick Lazio, a man who went into his televised senatorial debate last week with one mission -- to prove himself senatorial -- and came out of it looking like the toughest debater at a Long Island junior high school.

His presentation problems couldn't be more obvious: his voice is actually pitched about four notes higher than his female opponent's and he looks like the day manager at a Burger King.

There are, of course, image professionals who can help a pol with such problems -- diabolic and often brilliant TV-saturated folks who, given almost anything to work with, can whip up an acceptable tub of chicken salad.

But no. Lazio, it seems, did what the slower pols always do -- he obviously talked to no one but other politicians. So he went out not just to prove himself senatorial but to whip up as much anti-Hillary sentiment as he could.

Bad move. It wasn't, as some have said, that he was too "aggressive," it's that his tactics against her practiced poise and self-possession couldn't have been worse. He couldn't have made himself seem less senatorial if he had tried.

No one -- not even the nastiest street corner polemicist in Flatbush -- wants to see a man make anything like a physically threatening gesture to a woman, no matter who she is, not even the woman who, in some quarters, is as despised as anyone in America.

The "sign this, just sign this" walkover was catastrophically misconceived and infantile. In the United States Senate -- where both want to be in 2001 -- they don't do such things. They use the weapons of grown-ups -- words, facts and ideas, not macho stunts designed to impress the other kids in homeroom.

Channel 2 news' instant "who won" survey -- not the most scientific of polls, admittedly -- came out 70 percent for Hillary Rodham Clinton, 30 per cent for Lazio. Women have been almost universally appalled at Lazio. He wanted to appear senatorial. All he wound up doing was presenting himself as a man in desperate need of a tactical diaper change.

The conclusion was obvious: either he has no advisers smart enough to successfully strategize a major debate or he doesn't listen to the ones he has.

Al D'Amato, no doubt, thought Lazio won the debate. But then that's one good reason why Al D'Amato is no longer in the United States Senate.

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