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Madame President What would the nation look like with a female top executive? Geena Davis shows the way in 'Commander in Chief'

The approval ratings of President Mackenzie Allen in ABC's "Commander in Chief," premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 7, are about as high as President Josiah Bartlet had in the first season of "West Wing." And for good reason.

ABC gave "Chief" the "Desperate Housewives" summer treatment, electing to launch it with the kind of thorough, inspiring media campaign that might get any candidate -- except perhaps Joel Giambra -- re-elected.

The promo campaign recently has focused on all the glowing reviews for the pilot. The episode is loaded with the kind of passionate speeches that Bartlet became famous for, some humor aimed at former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and an inside look at hardball politics.

Geena Davis stars as Mackenzie Allen, the 45-year-old vice president and mother of three, who becomes the first female in the White House after the death of President Teddy Roosevelt Bridges.

A former two-term congresswoman and chancellor of the University of Richmond, Allen was an independent put on the ticket to get Bridges elected even though she had a different political philosophy than her running mate.

When the president first becomes incapacitated, practically everyone expects she'll pass up her place in history and resign. This includes many of the women surrounding her, including a top female aide, her teen-age daughter and the president's press secretary. Her resignation would allow the Neanderthal Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton -- played by Donald Sutherland -- to run the country.

In a one-on-one conversation with Allen, the speaker talks his way out of office.

If you get past the absurdity of anyone considering just saying no to the presidency, especially a woman who would make history, then "Commander in Chief" will command your attention from the opening credits (which focus on the letters Man in comMANder).

The scenes between Davis and Sutherland get your blood boiling and the awkward moments President Allen has with her husband and political partner, Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor of "Homicide"), have an added poignancy even before he says one of the many (too many) lines revealed in the promos: "Go win the country." By the time she speaks to the Congress to address a grieving nation, President Allen is likely to get many Nielsen votes, even if Davis isn't a gifted orator.

This doesn't necessarily mean the approval ratings for TV's second fantasy president can be maintained, since "West Wing" is as tough an act to follow as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It may be difficult for "Commander in Chief" to get a fair deal and win the country, especially since she also is competing for America's affection with NBC's "My Name Is Earl."

In an interview in Los Angeles, Davis said she didn't have to think as long as her character did about assuming the presidency. "I have to say, I leapt at the chance," said Davis. "It's certainly the role with the most gravitas that I've had to play, and I find that fascinating. I really love the way Mackenzie is in the world and how she deals with people, how straight she is, how intelligent and confident -- and it's a pleasure."

Mackenzie was given those traits from creator Rod Lurie, whose credits include a film about the confirmation of a female vice presidential candidate, "The Contender," that he dedicated to his daughter. I had to ask Lurie why so many female characters are against the idea of a female president.

"I'm trying to show how much the odds are stacked against her," explained Lurie. "You want to know something interesting? Most polls show that's the case. . . . I don't know how true it is that the No. 1 issue for women in the United States is security, and that women have polled as being more in favor of a man being in charge of the nation's security than a woman."

"Still, I just read that 81 percent of Americans are ready to vote for a woman," said Davis. "So it sounds like America is ready."

A Democrat (like all the cast members at the Hollywood news conference), Lurie chose to put the first female president in office as a result of an accident, rather than an election.

"I couldn't think of another way to get her into power where basically her own Cabinet is against her, the whole world is crashing down upon her," said Lurie. "I also feel as an independent it would be naive and fairy-tale-ish to assume right now that an independent would come to power at the head of a ticket."

With Mackenzie in office by the end of tonight's pilot, Lurie will be free to focus on a different political agenda than on "West Wing." He said there will be more focus on family issues involving her teen-age twins (a boy and a girl) and young daughter, how the White House kitchen and state dinners work and less about how the communication staff deals with policy issues and law-making minutia. Among the issues he expects to deal with are the selection of Allen's vice president (played by Peter Coyote), the death penalty, stem cell research and the war on drugs.

And since President Allen doesn't expect to serve another term and is an independent, Lurie said she has some advantages over past presidents.

"Remember the moment in 'The Candidate,' where Robert Redford is convinced to run because he's told, 'You're going to lose?' " said Lurie. "She's going to lose is the feeling right now. She can do whatever she wants, which means what is right for the country."

Not that she'll always be right and Templeton will always be wrong.

"I guarantee that you're going to see some failings, which means some winnings for Donald Sutherland's character," said Lurie. "Although, she is going to be a damn good president and one that we can be proud of."

His dream is to see a woman in the Oval Office, though he realizes the odds are low that it will happen any time soon.

"Hillary Clinton is going to have a very tough fight," said Lurie. "However, if she should get the nomination, we're all taking the credit."

Commander in Chief

9 tonight, Channel 7

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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