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NO LONGER DRIVING IN MIDDLE OF ROAD

So long, Centerville.

This is the mythical place where the presidential race is supposed to be decided. Unless you made the perfectly understandable decision to tune out politics once the presidential candidates trundled out of New Hampshire, you know who is supposed to live in Center-ville: middle-class suburbanites. In middle-of-the-road states. In communities where people don't like politicians and don't think much about politics, don't like negative ads, don't like to be talked down to and don't like very much about Washington - except when Washington is sending checks for good things such as Social Security, Medicare, college aid and new highways.

Lately, though, the campaign bus seems to have left the Centerville station.

Al Gore pulled out first, with his August convention speech that sounded as if it could have been delivered by William Jennings Bryan. "They're for the powerful and we're for the people," the New Democrat-turned-Nouveau Populist said, revving up his campaign against "big tobacco, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs."

Leftist class warfare, the gleeful Republicans sneered.

They were certain it would turn off the good citizens of Centerville, who have, after all, spent much of their lives striving to live like the bourgeoisie, even if their proletarian incomes (plus credit-card debt) barely allow it. They were sure it would backfire. Until it worked.

Now George W. Bush is left to run a campaign on issues, not imagery. And he is doing it the only way he, and every other Republican to come down the (government-financed) pike since Ronald Reagan, knows how: by taking a right turn to accuse Gore of being in bed with big-government bureaucrats. (Or is that big government bureaucRATS?)

"My opponent's ideas are shaped by a quarter century in Washington, and they were tired even when his career began," Bush told California Republicans last weekend. "Every big idea means bigger government. Rules replace choices. Regulations replace responsibility. It is an old temptation: You start off trying to help people and end up telling them what to do."

You get the point. A Republican running against big government isn't exactly new and different. A Democrat who rails against big corporations doesn't sound like he reinvented the political wheel while he was reinventing government.

This whole campaign was supposed to be about the middle. That's why Bush started out trying not to sound scary, and visited lots of schools instead of saying he'd shut down the U.S. Education Department. That's why Gore emphasized the slow - but steady, he said - progress toward achieving universal health care.

Now the deck's scrambled and the cards have fallen, pretty much, where they always do. Bush wants to rely on private markets, even for Social Security and Medicare, to do the job government has so far done well. Gore really does trust the government to do what it has done reasonably well so far - and to fill the gaps, such as insuring uninsured kids - where private markets have failed.

It's Gore, actually, who has the more conservative fiscal policy, relying as he does on using budget surpluses to pay down the federal debt. It's a policy Alan Greenspan could (and does) love, but that Bush slams as leaving too much money in the government's piggy bank.

So, Centerville, take your pick. It's starting to look a lot like the choice between the same two products you've always been offered - wrapped, for the moment, in different packages.

Newsday

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