Is it really possible that Jeb Bush could lose?

Put another way: Would Bush have been on the "Today" show this week if he thought he was a shoo-in?

The fact that a previously obscure attorney has made a horse race out of the Florida governor's contest speaks volumes about the delicately balanced politics of the state that gave us the greatest presidential cliffhanger of the modern age.

On one hand, some Democrats are motivated by memories of the butterfly-ballot fiasco of '00 -- and by the sheer partisan joy of trying to knock off the president's brother.

On the other, you'd think an incumbent with a bankable last name, a huge war chest, a hot line to the White House and years of political experience would barely have to break a sweat against this Bill McBride fellow.

The governor almost never does national interviews -- you don't see him chatting with Russert or Koppel -- so it was a surprise to find him walking on the beach with NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel Tuesday morning.

"Why are you so vulnerable to someone really no one knows?" asked Gangel, who seems to get all the exclusives involving Bush family members.

Bush ventured that it was a "big deal" for McBride to knock off Janet Reno, and he had the backing of the big bad unions. But "once people see where he stands on the issues .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. I'll be fine."

The strangest thing about the "Today" segment was that we never heard from McBride, not even in a token sound bite. Terry McAuliffe got to predict that Bush was going down, but no word from his actual opponent. Instead, we saw Bush at his laptop, e-mailing his constituents.

The real reason this was a coup for "Today" was Bush's heartfelt discussion about his daughter, Noelle, who faces jail over her cocaine addiction. It was impossible not to sympathize with Bush over the "horrible" experience. But when the governor said he hoped "that people don't go overboard because of who she is," we wondered whether he wasn't adding to the scrutiny by discussing her plight on national television.

Which we mightily doubt he would have done if it wasn't three weeks until Election Day.

St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler doesn't think much of either candidate's debating style:

"Gov. Jeb Bush and his Democratic challenger, Bill McBride, had an hourlong debate Tuesday morning on statewide radio. Bush was better than McBride but too snotty. He can't help it. McBride was woolly and ineffective. Apparently he can't help that either. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Bush displays this by being unable to answer a question without a nyah-nyah tone, saying more or less, 'Well, if my opponent knew anything at all about this,' or, 'Well, if my opponent really had any sense,' 'If my opponent wasn't a lawyer,' and so forth.

"Dear governor: I am sure your party leaders and your young staffers are slapping you on the back and saying, wow, you really showed those liberals! But there is only a sliver of undecided voters who will decide this election. They do not like nyah-nyah.

"McBride, in turn, still does not feel compelled to say a danged thing about what he would do if he became governor. The Democrats dislike Bush so much that they apparently believe all they have to do is say, look, we have nominated the Not-Jeb.

"This is what we know of McBride: If he becomes governor, he will 'roll up his sleeves.' He will bring people 'around the table.' He will provide 'leadership.'"

The Orlando Sentinel says the ad wars are heating up:

"After weeks of tip-toeing on TV, Democrat Bill McBride has directly attacked Gov. Jeb Bush with a new ad challenging the governor by name and claiming Florida's schools have 'declined' on his watch.

"The assault on the Republican governor is certain to draw a swift GOP TV response, shifting the close race for governor into a higher, and rougher, gear in the final three weeks.

"'It gets to the issue that all the experts and really the people of Florida are asking: What's the case to be made for not re-electing Bush and hiring a new governor?' said Alan Stonecipher, McBride campaign spokesman. Bush, denouncing his rival's attack as a 'gross distortion,' says he expected it. His campaign promises to retaliate.",0,4040385.story?coll=orl%2Dnews%2Dheadlines

And the money chase is in high gear, says the Miami Herald:

"President Bush today will make his 11th trip to the state since taking office last year and plans to headline a high-dollar reception in Central Florida to help his younger brother.

"McBride, whose quest to unseat the president's brother on Nov. 5 is gaining increasing attention across the nation, heads to Washington tonight for a fundraiser at the home of Georgetown socialite Elizabeth Bagley.

"Friday, he will collect more of the unregulated, unlimited contributions known as 'soft money' at a breakfast with former Sen. Bob Kerrey and a lunch with former President Bill Clinton.

"While Jeb Bush and the state Republican Party have raised well over $30 million and are hardly lacking funds, McBride and the Democrats are spending as fast as they can raise what strategists hope will amount to $10 million."

The Washington Post has a good takeout on the race as well.

Even Jeb's cousin, John Ellis, the former Fox News analyst, isn't optimistic:

"The big story is the governors. Unlike senators (with the possible exception of John McCain) and House members, governors can actually help a presidential candidate win an election. The late Lee Atwater used to say that a governor was worth at least a point in any state. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"In this year's mid-term gubernatorial elections, GOP prospects waver between blah and bleak. Blah would be the loss of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Bleak would be the loss of Florida and perhaps even Texas. In both states, the numbers are already too close for comfort. While President Bush is certain to win Texas in 2004, he must also win Florida to win re-election. And in order to win Florida, he probably needs his brother there to deliver unto him Atwater's one percent."

As if there wasn't enough to worry about, between al Qaeda and Iraq and the Middle East and the sniper, now this:

"Confronted by new American intelligence, North Korea has admitted that it has been conducting a major clandestine nuclear-weapons development program for the past several years, the Bush administration said tonight," reports the New York Times.

"Officials added that North Korea had also informed them that it was terminating a 1994 agreement with the United States to freeze all of its nuclear activity.

"North Korea's surprise revelation came 12 days ago in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, after a senior American diplomat confronted his North Korean counterparts with American intelligence data suggesting a secret project was under way. At first, the North Korean officials denied the allegation, according to an American official who was present.

"The next day they acknowledged the nuclear program and according to one American official, said 'they have more powerful things as well.' American officials have interpreted that cryptic comment as an acknowledgment that North Korea possesses other weapons of mass destruction."

Been seeing too many political ads on TV? You're not imagining things, says USA Today:

"Political spending on television ads has eclipsed the record amount spent by candidates, political parties and independent groups in the 2000 presidential election year and could hit $1 billion by Election Day.

"Propelling the trend are a cliffhanger battle for control of Congress, free-spending gubernatorial races in states with expensive media markets and a rush by the Democratic and Republican parties to use all of their unlimited 'soft money,' which will be banned after the Nov. 5 election. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The heavy spending defies the conventional wisdom that election years without a race for the White House are less expensive. It also appears to belie the stated intentions of campaigns, parties and interest groups to shift their emphasis to more personal get-out-the-vote efforts. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Many of the nation's 36 races for governor are hotly contested. New York, Texas and California are likely to see $100 million spent."

Which is why a lot of people must be hitting the mute button.

The Boston Globe ensures that the GOP candidate for governor will have trouble winning the gay vote:

"Republican Mitt Romney, who in his gubernatorial campaign has said he supports gay rights, endowed a management school with a $1 million donation to Brigham Young University, a school with antigay policies aimed at punishing, often by suspension or expulsion, students who engage in any homosexual activity.

"The honor code at BYU, where Romney in 1998 helped to finance the George Romney School of Management, named for his father, prohibits students who are 'same-sex attracted' from openly expressing their sexual orientation. The university's honor code, which must be signed by all students, lists 'homosexual conduct' as one of several areas of sexual misconduct that can lead to suspension or dismissal.

"Contacted by the Globe, Romney declined yesterday through a spokesman to take a position on the school's policy toward gays."

National Review's Jay Nordlinger doesn't like Tom Friedman's column on gun control. He starts by quoting the column:

"The fact that the president speaks only about Iraq, while his neighbors down the street speak only about the [sniper on the loose], reinforces the sense that this administration is so obsessed with Saddam it has lost touch with the real anxieties of many Americans. Mr. Bush wants to rally the nation to impose gun control on Baghdad, but he won't lift a finger to impose gun control on Bethesda, six miles from the White House."

Now comes the ammunition:

"Notice that Bush is 'obsessed' with Iraq. If you don't like someone's interest, or what someone is doing, or someone's seriousness, call it an 'obsession.' Makes it look like a psychological disorder. I suppose Churchill was obsessed with Hitler.

"And Bush won't lift a finger to impose gun control. The American president, of course, isn't a dictator: He can't 'impose gun control.' And the idea that gun control would have stopped this sniper is ridiculous.

"Friedman concludes, 'Frankly, I don't want to hear another word about Iraq right now.' That's not the writing of a Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist; that's the outburst of an unruly, petulant child. 'I want to hear that my president and my Congress [I love those mys] are taking the real steps needed in this country -- starting with sane gun control and sane economic policy. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. '

"A little over a year ago, 3,000 people were murdered in cold blood, very close to where I'm typing now. The president, thank goodness, is taking 'real steps' to confront a real problem.

"It could be that Friedman has to shower Bush with garbage regularly, to make up for his (general) support of the president's approach on the war. This way, he keeps his 'creds' -- is that what the kids say? -- in his neck of the woods. In order to breathe a word of criticism of an Arab thug, he has to call Sharon a monster; and in order to breathe a word of approval for President Bush's policies, he has to say that Bush -- certainly in his domestic policies -- is .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. well, a monster: someone who'd let his neighbors be gunned down while he was heedlessly sippin' juleps on the veranda."

OpinionJournal's James Taranto ridicules the coverage of that cliffhanger in Saddam land:

"Iraq is holding a sham election today, in which citizens 'vote' on whether Saddam Hussein should serve another seven years as president. Under the watchful eye of Saddam's thugs, these 'voters' must sign their names to the 'ballots,' and any who dare vote 'no' can expect to be executed.

"It's a mystery why Western news organizations insist on portraying this as if it were an actual election. We've previously criticized Reuters and CNN for this, but it's very widespread:

"'Iraq Says 'Yes' to Saddam; Voters Show Support as U.S. Threat Mounts'--headline,, Oct. 15

"'Iraqis Urged to Back Hussein 100%'--headline, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 15

"'Saddam Aims for 100% Support'--headline, BBC, Oct. 15

"'Although President Saddam Hussein faces no challenger in Tuesday's presidential referendum, the government is pushing for the highest percentage of 'yes' votes to paint Saddam as a popular leader in a rebuke to the United States.'--lead paragraph, Associated Press dispatch, Oct. 15

"CNN and Reuters are still at it too. A headline from yesterday declares: 'Election All but Assured for Saddam.' (Isn't that 'all but' a lovely touch?) Today's follow-up: 'Landslide Expected in Saddam Poll.'

"Reuters leads off its 'report' with this ludicrous statement: 'Defiant Iraqis lined up to show their support for Saddam Hussein Tuesday as Western powers were deadlocked over how to deal with the veteran leader they say threatens world security.' A captive people does a dictator's bidding under threat of death--only in Reuterville could anyone call this 'defiant.'

"Worst of all is the Los Angeles Times. Reporter Michael Slackman's article carries the headline 'For Iraqis, Vote for Hussein Is an Exercise in Democracy.' 'Of course the outcome is preordained,' Slackman acknowledges. 'But then, so is Western reaction'--as if making a mockery of democracy were morally equivalent to recognizing that someone's made a mockery of democracy.

"The New York Times and Washington Post deserve credit for playing the story at least somewhat straight, albeit with excessive understatement. The Times' headline reads 'Iraqis Cheer for Their President, but Their Real Mood Is Hard to Read.' The Post has a silly headline--'In Iraqi Ballot on Hussein, All Signs Pointing to Yes'--but at least the subheadline acknowledges it's an 'orchestrated referendum.'"

Talk about an ill-timed commercial. Check out this item from the Carolina Channel:

"The Democrat who wants to replace Strom Thurmond in the United States Senate pulled his latest television ad on Tuesday.

"In the commercial that was taken out of rotation, Alex Sanders and his wife, Zoe, talk about hunting and shooting skeet. Both are shown holding shotguns. While loading a shell into his gun during the ad, Sanders says that he wants to go to the nation's capital and 'take aim' at certain Washington ideas."

"A spokesperson for Sanders told News 4's Brad Willis that the campaign was pulling the ad for now in light of the recent sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C. area."

Finally, the New York Daily News goes with this screamer: "THE DOPER DON."

"Tony Soprano may pop Prozac, but that's nothing compared with James Gandolfini's real-life drug woes.

"Gandolfini -- who plays the beleaguered New Jersey mob boss on the hit HBO show 'The Sopranos' -- came clean yesterday and admitted he once battled cocaine and alcohol.

"The tough-guy actor confirmed to the Daily News allegations of substance abuse leveled against him by his wife, Marcy, in their divorce."

Is Tony now damaged goods? Maybe the program can replace him at the last minute with Bob Torricelli.