We suddenly understand why the '02 campaign coverage seems like such a soggy, misshapen blob.

It's really about '04!

This is the tune up, the dry run, the spring training for the presidential race that reporters really care about.

At this point, the next White House contest is personality-driven: Will Al challenge George again? Will Joe break his promise to Al? Will Dick leave the House for another try? Is John from North Carolina a fresher face than John from Massachusetts?

The current campaign, by contrast, is issue-driven: Will Iraq trump the economy? Can the Democrats exploit Social Security privatization? Does anyone still care about prescription drugs?

No wonder many media outlets seem more interested in the election two years down the road than the one at hand, which by the way will determine who controls Congress.

(Gore must be running, right? He's agreed to sit down with Barbara Walters after the election. What's he going to do -- chat up Barbara about the great national issues and then announce he wants to spend more time with his family? He's already spending more time with his family!)

When you read political stories these days, just look for the telltale '04 paragraph (or the telltale '08 graph in Hillary's case). That suggests the journalistic prism through which any move by any possible contender is being viewed. The presumption is that any politician casting a covetous eye toward 1600 Penn is consumed with ambition every waking moment and won't utter a syllable that might hinder a White House run. That, for example, is the way the Democratic wannabes were covered when they voted on Iraq.

Reporters also assume that when a candidate says he'll examine his options after the midterm elections, what he really means is: I lust in my heart for the job but it's not prudent to say so until the end of the year.

Let's start with this Los Angeles Times piece on the prez:

"Beginning a planned three weeks of intense travel, President Bush visited Michigan on Monday to try to turn a hard-fought House race into a Republican victory as he scraps for the critical seats that could mean the difference between a GOP or Democratic-led Congress for the next two years.

"The tentative schedule devised by the White House has him crossing the country as the Nov. 5 elections approach, spending no more than three full days at the White House. With few exceptions, many of the approximately 15 states Bush is expected to visit were among the closest in the presidential election two years ago. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Multiple visits are being considered to Florida, where the president's brother, Jeb, is seeking reelection as governor. Jeb Bush's defeat at the hands of Democrat Bill McBride would be a sharp political and personal setback to the president."


When Al Gore hit Iowa Monday, he sure sounded like he was smarting over '00, as Adam Nagourney of the New York Times noted in covering this speech:

"'Do you remember where you were when they stopped counting the vote in 2000; do you remember how you felt?' Mr. Gore asked at a raucous rally at Cornell College here.

"'Cheated!' a few of the undergraduates roared back.

"'Well, the next time somebody says to you that it does not make any difference who wins the election, think about all that has happened since that election,' Mr. Gore said, grinning at his reception. 'I think Bill Clinton and I did a damn good job.'"

Clinton. Bill Clinton. Was that the guy whose name he hardly mentioned in the last campaign?

"Mr. Gore framed his speeches as appeals to Iowans to elect Democrats to Congress. But he sounded like a man testing out a case to be made against Mr. Bush."


Dan Balz of The Washington Post weighed in as well:

"Sometime near the end of this year, Gore will decide whether to seek the presidency again in 2004, and if the answer is yes, he will become the instant frontrunner for his party's nomination -- the man who won the popular vote but lost the presidency. Whether he has used the past two years effectively to build the foundation for another presidential bid is a different question, and on that the balance sheet is far less encouraging.

"Gore still commands a bigger stage than all his potential rivals. His dissenting speech on Iraq last month proved that was true, not only in the coverage it generated in newspapers and on television, but also in its effect on the Democratic Party. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Gore has neither spent much time tending to the mundane tasks of keeping a political network stitched together, nor necessarily improved his political standing in areas where he needed to work. Former supporters or advisers grumble he has not touched base with them. One Democratic strategist said that, some months before Gore had lunch with union presidents in Washington last summer, he was given a list of labor leaders to call. 'He didn't make the calls,' the strategist said."


Bad boy.

The Boston Globe keeps an eye on John Kerry:

"The Hispanic population is booming in the United States, and nowhere is the community's hope for newfound political strength more apparent this year than in Arizona. There are two new congressional seats being added in the state, for a total of eight, and Democrats believe that the Hispanic candidates they are backing have a realistic chance of winning four of them on Election Day.

"That perhaps explained why Senator John F. Kerry spent the past two days in Tucson and Phoenix, stumping for local political candidates from governor on down and laying another brick in the foundation for a likely presidential run in 2004."


As if the Democratic field wasn't large enough, the Des Moines Register reports:

"While in Iowa promoting an election reform bill, Sen. Christopher Dodd said Monday he is weighing a possible bid for the White House in 2004.

"'We're giving it some thought, but I'm nowhere near as far along as others,' said the Connecticut Democrat. 'We'll see after the election.'"


The New Republic asks the burning question:

Is Wesley Clark running for president? A piece yesterday on the New Hampshire political website PoliticsNH.com reports that the former Supreme Commander of NATO has recently been sighted in the Granite State, glad-handing and speechifying like a champ. (Question: Is being called 'Mr. President' a step down from being called 'Mr. Supreme Commander'?) In fact, Clark's activities looked so uncannily candidential that they even prompted the obligatory denial from his New Hampshire escort, former State Democratic Chairman George Bruno. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"We were all set to believe Mr. Bruno. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. But then we read in [ABC's] Note that Clark is heading south to North Carolina, where he'll hit the campaign trail with Democratic Senate nominee Erskine Bowles. Go figure."


Here's a Wall Street Journal report with obvious '04 overtones:

"Appealing to voter unease about the economy, leading Democrats blasted the White House for fiscal mismanagement and unveiled their own ideas for restoring growth.

"In a speech yesterday before the liberal Economic Policy Institute, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt proposed a $200 billion stimulus package that includes $75 billion in temporary business and individual tax incentives, plus $125 billion in new federal spending for school construction, health-care assistance and domestic-security programs.

"Mr. Gephardt (D., Mo.) said the proposals represent priorities the Democratic Party would pursue if it gains control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 5 election. Also yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) delivered his own pitch for a minimum-wage increase, pension changes, relief for revenue-strapped states and extending jobless benefits.

"The push is part of Democrats' efforts to steer the national debate back to pocketbook issues, now that Congress has approved an Iraq war resolution. Still, Messrs. Daschle and Gephardt continue to dance around a larger issue: the fate of President Bush's 10-year tax cut."

The Washington Times has a little different spin on the same story:

"Democratic leaders yesterday escalated their attacks on President Bush's economic policies, proposing massive new government spending that Republicans scorned as election-year 'snake oil' that would do nothing to spur faster growth and job creation."


Gun politics seems to play a role in every campaign, and after every shooting, as this USA Today story makes clear:

"Although 'fingerprinting' technology exists to match bullets recovered from a crime scene to the gun that fired them, political opposition and concerns about its reliability have limited its use. The sniper shootings around Washington, D.C., have revived the issue of using the procedure on every handgun and rifle.

"The gun lobby has blocked efforts to expand such a system, calling it a form of gun registration. The White House weighed in against its effectiveness yesterday."


Something tells us the real issue is not whether it works.

Another reason why the election matters, from the New York Times:

"President Bush's ability to shape the federal bench, at stake in the November election, is heating up this year's election campaigns.

"Frustrated by Senate Democrats' blocking conservative judicial candidates, Mr. Bush is putting the issue at the core of his efforts on behalf of Republican candidates, hoping to use it to put the Senate back in his party's control.

"'The Senate is doing a lousy job on my judge nominations,' the president said on Monday at a campaign stop in Michigan in remarks that he echoes in state after state. There are many 'reasons why we need to change the Senate,' he added. One was 'to make sure that the federal bench represents the way you want them to serve.'"


It looks like the City of Angels isn't headed for a divorce after all, says the Los Angeles Times:

"Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly oppose breaking up the city and, for the first time, the idea trails in the San Fernando Valley, birthplace of the secessionist movement, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The new survey found that 56% of likely Los Angeles voters said they oppose Valley secession, while 27% said they favor it, with the remaining 17% undecided. Outside the Valley, 62% of respondents said they oppose letting the Valley go its own way; 18% support it and 20% were undecided.

"Likely Valley voters were leaning against the measure, 47% to 42%, a gap that falls within the poll's margin of error."


OpinionJournal's Thomas Bray says the Dems have really blown it on Iraq:

"Desperate to get back to electioneering as usual, the Democratic leadership has handed President Bush authority to use force against Iraq if Saddam Hussein doesn't promptly disarm. Thus, from Maine to California, fright TV already is in full swing: A vote for Republicans, we are told, is a vote to send Granny off a cliff in her wheelchair, strip-mine Yellowstone Park, let corporate felons run loose in the streets and steal the votes of minorities.

"On the face of things, the Democratic strategy makes sense. Polls consistently show that the No. 1 voter concern is the economy. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The reason voters appear reluctant to punish the GOP, one suspects, is not just a rally-round-the-president effect. The first Iraq war didn't help the first President Bush, who also had weather a severe economic malaise.

"More likely, what has stuck in voters' minds is the way the Democrats conducted the Iraq debate. They came away seeming hollow; the debate underlining their cynicism and mean-spiritedness. Democrats, in other words, are in danger of becoming what they accuse their opponents of. Because the media suffer from almost total myopia on this point--preferring always and everywhere to attach the words cynical and mean-spirited only to the 'right wing'--they may be missing an important political phenomenon.

"It's not just a matter of the Democrats having been on the wrong side. I persist in believing that there are some good arguments against going abroad in search of monsters to slay. But the Democrats utterly failed to confront these issues honestly. Instead, they caviled, whined, played for time and tried to arrange things so that they can start yelling 'I told you so' as soon as something goes wrong--even while trying to insulate themselves from having their fingerprints on the decision for war or peace."


Slate's David Plotz takes issue with the recent obits for one of America's most prominent historians, Stephen Ambrose:

"His tongue-bath obituaries all but clear him of the plagiarism charges that dogged his final year. The Washington Post, after 1,500 words of gush, glosses over the plagiarism as mere lack of quotations in a 'couple of books' and hints that academic 'jealousy' of Ambrose -- not his own misdeeds -- caused the controversy.

"The widely printed Associated Press obit similarly neglects plagiarism till the last few paragraphs, and then allots more space to Ambrose's belligerent rebuttal than to the actual theft. His hometown New Orleans Times-Picayune also leaves the plagiarism till the end and allows Tom Brokaw to dismiss it as an 'asterisk' on his career. The TV obituaries don't refer to it at all. Only the New York Times, which discovered some of Ambrose's larceny, delves into Ambrose's wrongdoing early and at length.

"All the obits, including the Times, give credence to Ambrose's excuses. He is described as having merely omitted quotation marks in a few passages when he had already footnoted the author. His defiant responses are much quoted: I always footnoted, I always gave other writers credit, I made only a few tiny mistakes in thousands of superb pages. To hear Ambrose, the people he plagiarized should have been grateful that he mentioned their names in his popular books.

"But Ambrose's pilferage was much more than a slip-up in a 'couple of books.' As the Weekly Standard, Forbes.com, and New York Times proved in one damning week last January, Ambrose plagiarized all the time. He did it when he was writing books quickly at the end of his career (the vast ripped-off swathes of recent best-seller The Wild Blue), and he did it when he was writing books slowly at the beginning of his career (his 1975 Crazy Horse and Custer steals from earlier Custer bios). .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Judging by obituaries and by his recent sales, Ambrose's readers have forgiven him, though it's not clear they ever blamed him. I suspect that Ambrose is easily absolved because he and his work are so relentlessly upbeat."


On the other hand, obituaries are supposed to weigh a person's whole career.

Finally, two very different takes on the upcoming Giants-Angels World Series. First, the Los Angeles Times:

"For the fourth time in history, an all-California series will offer the opportunity to dissect the Golden State and line up its parts along lines both mythical and real.

"It will pit fog versus smog, cioppino versus chile verde, politically correct versus politically conservative, Web-surfing versus wave surfing, and the Grateful Dead versus Los Lobos. The rest of the country will have to get on the bandwagon or sit it out, as one fan put it."


And the New York Times, in a city that hosted five of the last six fall classics:

"As Yogi Berra might have put it, it sure got late early for New York sports fans.

"It's only mid-October, a time when championships, or at least hopes for them, are usually ripening, and it already feels like this could be the longest, loneliest sports season in 15 years. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The Yankees, of course, are history, with Derek Jeter trying to find a way for his $189 million contract to lighten what the back page of a newspaper called his profound depression over the sudden end of his autumn activity. And those other Giants, the deserters who split for the West Coast 45 short years ago, have now brought about -- horror of New York horrors -- an all-California World Series."


Something tells us the rest of the country isn't feeling the city's pain.