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It's over. George W. Bush can start writing his "concessionable" speech. My conviction that Bush will lose in six weeks has nothing to do with the polls. I didn't believe them this summer, when CNN had Bush leading by 16 percent, and I don't believe them now that Newsweek has him trailing by 14 (figures which, if true, would mean that 30 million voters have changed their minds in the last seven weeks).

I do, however, believe in the zeitgeist -- the spirit of the times. Every season has one, and when a political leader taps into it, he usually wins -- whatever his shortcomings and however profound his flaws. And there are few presidential candidates as profoundly flawed and deeply unattractive as Al Gore.

But it doesn't matter, because the present zeitgeist -- to the surprise of all those mesmerized by the effervescent economy -- is a populist one, and Gore read it. There is an unspoken sense that after 114 months of uninterrupted prosperity, we should not still have 34.5 million people living below the poverty line, 20 million workers earning $15,000 or less, 11 million uninsured children and 44 million illiterate Americans.

Now, if you don't believe this is the case, then what else accounts for Al Gore giving an acceptance speech this year that bore no relation to his announcement speech last year? And, why else, just by switching from posing as the guardian of our prosperity to posing as the champion of "the people," was he able to turn into a campaign Superman? By promising to take on "the powerful," this rather powerful sitting vice president was able to leap over his more charming, more personable, more bilingual and better financed opponent in a single bound.

Since Gore's big bounce, Bush has been struggling to repackage supply-side policies to appear as if they were actually designed to take care of the little people. First, he tried to "put a face," as he described it, on his $1.3 trillion tax cut by trotting out for the press Andrew Buchacs, who makes $40,000 a year as a schoolteacher, along with his stay-at-home wife and their two children.

While it is absolutely true that Buchacs' tax burden would be dramatically reduced by the Bush plan, it is equally true that for every dollar middle-class families would receive, the wealthiest 1 percent would get 100 times more. Then Bush defended the repeal of the estate tax by presenting it as protecting the family farm -- when, in reality, it would benefit only the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. The ol' Trojan tractor ploy.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist isn't particularly discerning -- you can tap into it even when you don't mean it, provided you can fake sincerity more convincingly than your opponent. Bush set the bar so low that Gore was able to turn a five-city, 28-hour Labor Day campaign swing into the procession of a working-class hero.

"How can we stand by if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and . . . schools and hospitals and the environment . . . are all falling into disrepair and decay?" asked the corporate-cozy candidate. Simple: just keep doing exactly what you've been doing for the last eight years.

And Gore reached new depths in pseudo-populist posturing when he took on the pharmaceutical industry. "They give in to the big drug companies," he said of his opponent. "I fight for families." This from a man whose inner circle is brimming with drug-company lobbyists -- past, present and, no doubt, future -- and who not that long ago was willing to sacrifice thousands of lives in Africa on the altar of pharmaceutical profits.

Keen observers of Gore populism will surely have noticed that it is getting milder by the minute. His fiery convention claim that "my focus is on working families" has already been watered down to the more soccer mom-friendly "we need to start looking out after the middle-class families." And while asserting that education is "the key to America's success," his proposal to make college tuition tax deductible is likely to be more well received in our nation's suburbs than in its crumbling inner cities.

But so powerful is the populist undercurrent that even an anemic expression of it will be strong enough to carry Gore to an undeserved victory, no matter how passionately Bush kisses Oprah. So start picking out drapes, Tipper. And all you "little people" and "working families" can start picking out what you'll wear to the inauguration ball when those tickets arrive from your fearless fighter.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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