The big question for many voters: Who is cooler?

Every four years, journalists sit down and try to determine the model for the presidential campaign in which they are mired. In the case of this run, there have been two competing theories.

One crowd holds we are locked in a rerun of the 1988 presidential race, wherein an unpopular vice president rides to victory on prosperity and the success of his former boss.

Another clique maintains that Campaign 2000's corollary is actually 1960, wherein a dynamic newcomer defeats a slightly unpopular vice president in a time of prosperity.

In fact, both are wrong. Understanding this campaign is as simple as understanding the words of one voter who explained his plan to vote for George W. earlier this week: "I have it from a very good source that Gore is just weird."

And there you have it. The model for Campaign 2000 isn't 1988 or 1960 - it is the dramatic student-council president race you yourself lived through in high school. The race that turned on the critical question of "Who drives a cooler car?"

In fact, The New York Times says some pollsters have taken the question a step further and asked, if Al Gore and George W. Bush actually were cars, what kind of cars would they be?

For the record, Mr. Gore is labeled a Ford Taurus or a Volvo wagon; Mr. Bush is a viewed as a Maserati or a Mustang convertible. No word on Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan, but at this point Pat is probably just hoping not to be tagged a Yugo.

In some respects, of course, this is the nature of politics. Behind jazz and film, marketing is probably America's most significant 20th-century cultural export. And every US consumer appreciates good packaging.

But after 180 minutes of the kind of issue-laden debate people say they need to decide whom they will vote for, it's curious that we're still at the "I just don't like that guy's hair" stage of the campaign.

There are a few theories about this.

There is the "good times make for lazy voters" theory. This rests on the belief that the prolonged good economy has nullified "issues" as an issue in this race. Things have been so good for so long that basically anyone can keep them going.

For the apathetic, there is the "what's the difference" theory, which holds that Gore and Bush are Coke and Pepsi.

Blindfolded, the only way to tell the difference is, one sounds like your fifth-grade English teacher and the other like, well, the party guy who eventually won the student council race in high school.

There are some points of truth here.

First off, no matter what we like to pretend in presidential elections, the president does not dictate policy. Any plan you hear from these guys during the campaign has to get past 535 individuals on Capitol Hill, nine Supreme Court justices, and one chairman of the Fed.

And even though there are some real differences between these two guys, when you put them on stage together they tailor their answers to the moderate undecided voters, doing what they can to point out likenesses as much as differences.

When Gore says Bush's tax cut will hurt the middle class, Bush doesn't argue about a rising tide lifting all boats; he simply defends himself by saying Gore is using "fuzzy math." And when Bush questions Gore's proposals for government spending, Gore doesn't explain his idea of investing for the future, he simply says "lock box."

This urge to seem similar reached the height of ridiculousness on Wednesday night, when Bush fudged an answer about hate crimes legislation to indicate he might favor new laws in that area.

He doesn't and usually is happy to say so. But instead of using the opportunity to explain why, he tried to gloss over it.

All that doesn't explain contrasting ideas. It makes the campaign a pander game, a question of who is more "on your side." And lost is the significance of this election.

The beginning of the 21st century is looking more and more like the beginning of the 20th.

The economic and technological changes we are experiencing could become seismic.

Add in the questions of Supreme Court nominations and how we spend the federal surplus; and the 2000 election - everyone's favorite snooze-fest - becomes one of the most critical elections in the past 40 years.

Despite all of that, however, it may be that we are doomed to relive high school in this campaign. Who would make the better president? Who knows. But, man, that one guy seems weird.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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