Whatever other news George W. Bush wanted to make -- particularly his let's-just-you-me-and-Larry King-or-Tim Russert-debate challenge -- was obliterated yesterday.

Television was all over the truly earth-shattering news: Bush calling a New York Times reporter a bad name.

"Bush forgot a rule of the road -- don't say anything near a microphone that you wouldn't want your mother to hear," said CBS's John Roberts.

"Governor Bush may have stepped on his message of restoring dignity and honor to the White House when a microphone caught him making an undignified remark about a newspaper reporter," said NBC's John Siegenthaler.

As bleeped by the broadcast networks, Bush is heard telling running mate Dick Cheney, "That's Adam Clymer, a major league asshole."

"Oh yeah, he is, big time," Cheney says.

A handful of newspapers this morning make a big deal out of the Texas governor calling Clymer an "asshole" -- a word not usually published in family newspapers -- but many played it down in recounting the Illinois appearance. It was yet another demonstration of how a minor incident can be greatly magnified on the tube simply because it is captured on videotape.

New York Daily News gives the incident the "wood" -- tabloid talk for a screaming cover headline -- blaring, "THAT GUY's AN @$#&*!"

"George W. Bush launched his fall campaign sprint yesterday by telling voters "we need plain-spoken Americans in the White House" -- moments after he was caught calling a reporter a barnyard epithet." The News rendered the remark as "major-league a -- -- -- ."

The New York Post also protects its delicate readers from the word in its report on "Bush's X-rated barb."

The Washington Times report on Bush's "salty media critique" is especially creative, saying Bush called Clymer " `a major-league [deleted],' employing a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture."

The Boston Globe, which uses the actual A-word, frames the story this way: "George W. Bush yesterday urged voters to put `plain-spoken Americans in the White House,' intending to contrast himself with Vice President Al Gore. Instead, his frankness created an embarrassment, after he uttered a vulgarity that was accidentally broadcast over loudspeakers to a crowd of hundreds."

But USA Today did not mention the incident in its main campaign stories. The Los Angeles Times relegated it to the 26th paragraph.

The Washington Post story notes in the fourth paragraph that "Bush did a little of his own plain speaking. He and Cheney were smiling and looking at the crowd when Bush spotted a veteran reporter. He turned to Cheney and said in a remark picked up by an open microphone, `There's Adam Clymer -- major-league asshole from the New York Times.' "

Clymer, by the way, is the reporter who wrote recently that a Bush ad on prescription drugs had "zero" accuracy.

The New York Times, not surprisingly, deemed the "obscenity" unfit to print in the 14th paragraph of its campaign report. The paper quoted its executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, as responding to Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes's charge that Clymer's coverage has been "very unfair":

"This is at least Adam's eighth campaign. He knows what he is doing. His work is both fair and accurate. The Times has never heard from the Bush campaign about Adam. If they have a complaint, they should convey it to us and we will review it as we do all serious complaints about our coverage."

The Bush debate challenge -- which Vice President Gore rejected as a ploy to limit the audience for their fall faceoffs -- also heated things up on the airwaves. On CNN, Bush adviser Karl Rove and Gore strategist Bob Shrum accused each other of being deceptive, with Shrum at one point telling Rove to "shut up."

Over the holiday weekend, meanwhile, one media message emerged above all else:

The presidential race is close. Incredibly close. One heck of a barn burner.

A contest that, if it were an Olympic event, would have trouble filling the arena has clearly engaged the journalists who now get to blab about polling demographics and electoral-map strategies. (Of course, some of these prognosticators were saying just weeks ago how likely it was that Bush would beat Gore.)

Recent dispatches conveyed the sense of journalistic excitement. "As the fall campaign sprint begins, Al Gore and George W. Bush are zeroing in on America's heartland for what could be the closest presidential contest in a generation," says Paul West in the Baltimore Sun.

"New national voter surveys being released this week are expected to show that Gore has succeeded in wiping out Bush's yearlong advantage in the opinion polls. . . . At the same time, the electoral map indicates a considerable tightening in the state-by-state competition since last month's Democratic convention, when Gore's campaign began to take off."

It's so tight, says Rick Berke in the New York Times, that the battle may involve fewer than a million voters: "Labor Day is the unofficial opening of the general election campaign, but for most voters the race is already over. Strategists on both sides agree that more than 90 percent of the electorate has by now settled on either Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore.

"That leaves the outcome in November hinging on a sliver of expected voters -- fewer than 10 percent -- who truly have not made up their minds. This narrow pool of voters reflects what pollsters say has been an appreciable shift in the electorate in the two weeks since the Democratic convention."

The Washington Post's Dan Balz was also down with the program: "Al Gore and George W. Bush begin the final stage of the presidential campaign this weekend in the closest race the country has seen in two decades, with Bush on the defensive for the first time in six months, struggling to reverse the gains Gore made at his convention last month.

"Bush faces a restructured contest, with voters increasingly optimistic about the direction of the country -- which should benefit the party in the White House -- and with Gore seen as more personally appealing since stepping out on his own at his Los Angeles convention."

Under the headline "Bush Feeling the Heat Now," Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News goes a step further: "Since history says the guy who's ahead on Labor Day is usually the next President, George W. Bush could be in serious trouble for the first time since South Carolina. . . . `It's now Gore's to lose,' contends Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne. `He has succeeded in shifting the momentum of the debate toward issues -- and the issues favor Democrats.' "

Put another way: "Vice President Al Gore begins the fall stretch of the presidential campaign buoyant in the polls and brimming with confidence," says the New York Times. " . . . There is no question that the Gore team is pumped and basking in a spate of positive media coverage. But its euphoria is tempered with caution."

Even reluctant liberals are lining up behind Gore, says Jack Nelson in the Los Angeles Times: "Mainstream environmentalists are putting aside earlier concerns and lining up strongly behind Al Gore's presidential candidacy, turning away from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to back the Democratic ticket.

"Nationwide, fears among Gore supporters that Nader might siphon significant numbers of environmentalist votes from the vice president seem to have faded considerably. . . . Even Nader concedes that most environmentalists are now rallying around Gore. While insisting the "real gut fighters" of the movement still support him, Nader says other environmentalists are "looking at Bush as Genghis Khan and holding their nose and supporting Gore."

The vice president generally drew upbeat coverage for his Labor Day marathon, as captured in this Boston Globe piece Monday: "Al Gore punched in for a 27-hour Labor Day campaign shift yesterday, hoping that his round-the-clock, four-state swing would show unity with laborers, differentiate his work habits from George W. Bush, and maintain his momentum as the general-election campaign begins in earnest."

Among the commentariat that once chattered about Gore's earth tones and soporific speaking style, dissing W has become the latest rage.

"The Bush campaign has dissolved into a whiny puddle," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, adding: "W.'s attempt to be nasty and nice at the same time is so lame, it's making me miss Lee Atwater. At least Atwater knew where he wanted to be -- in the gutter."

And then there's this pull-no-punches headline in Slate: "Bush Is Toast."

Taking on the new Republican Party ad that mocks Gore as an Internet inventor and Buddhist temple glad-hander, William Saletan declares: "This is the stupidest, most self-destructive blunder I've witnessed in a presidential campaign. Worse than Michael Dukakis in the tank, worse than Walter Mondale saying he'd raise taxes, worse than any dumb thing Dan Quayle ever said. Both sides in this race knew the climate they were campaigning in. They knew people were tired of attack politics. They knew negative ads would backfire; John McCain proved it in South Carolina. They knew you could hit the opponent hard on issues but not on character. The Bush people knew where the line was, and they crossed it.

"Why is this mistake so terrible? Because the objective factors in the election -- peace, prosperity, sharp declines in crime and welfare -- have always favored Gore. Bush's only advantage lies in subjective factors: trustworthiness, decency, optimism, leadership. Now he's wrecked that advantage."

At least until next week.