John McCain has come up with an insidious secret plan to wrest the presidency from George Bush:

By being a heckuva lot funnier.

Live from New York, McCain is hosting "Saturday Night Live" tomorrow, part of an undisclosed plot to win the Nielsen primary by pulling better ratings than the commander-in-chief, who couldn't even convince the major networks to carry his last performance (it was on Iraq or some such snoozer).

Forget the polls -- what matters, in today's infotainment society, is market share.

Abandoning the drab confines of the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican took his traveling road show to "Regis and Kelly" yesterday, pronouncing his SNL stint as "a gas" but admitting he was "nervous." (Maybe his next fundraiser will be with Philbin on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?")

McCain popped up again last night with SNL alumnus Darrell Hammond, who did his dead-on Clinton, Gore and Cheney impressions, and Comedy Central funnyman Jon Stewart. The setting was a PBS special, co-hosted by Frank Sesno, on election reform (no wonder they needed some laughs).

Not to be outdone, Rudy Giuliani was yukking it up with David Letterman ("Who knows? Maybe some day I'd run for mayor again, maybe something else," he said, leaving that door ajar), while Ted Koppel did a star turn with Phil Donahue.

McCain has long used Borscht Belt timing as part of his political shtick, as reporters on the "Straight Talk Express" caravan learned during the last campaign. And when you think about it, isn't part of the president's job to keep the country sufficiently entertained? Clinton excelled at that, with his parade of scandals and gal pals, but Bush has been awfully serious lately.

Should his four-year show get a second run? Or would voters consider switching to an independent network if McCain mounted a WB-type challenge in 2004?

Even if McCain is deemed to be too far outside the prized 18-to-34 demographic, he has to consider his post-Senate career. He could probably land a talk show for a lot less dough than Clinton was demanding. If, that is, he doesn't fall on his face tomorrow night.

This just in: The Arizona Republic doesn't find McCain'act act funny:

"Arizona's Sen. John McCain, busy preparing this week to guest-host Saturday Night Live while conducting his nationwide book tour and making other TV appearances, did not show up for a vote on a $355 billion defense spending bill."

Back to the grimmer precincts of world affairs, where it took about 14 seconds for critics to blame the disclosure of North Korea's nuclear program on Clinton and his onetime envoy, Jimmy Carter.

Quotes Andrew Sullivan: "'North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it.' -- Bill Clinton, 'Meet the Press,' Nov. 7, 1993. Yet another lie; yet another betrayal."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says it was crazy for America to pay North Korea not to build nukes:

"This is the lesson that the Clinton White House never learned. When the North pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993, it discovered that its nuclear threats cost nothing and that in fact it won ever more international aid. Kim Jong Il's Stalinists also learned that no matter how they behaved, the U.S. would always back down. Even in their last days in office, Clinton officials were scrambling to conclude a new bribery payment, this time with space-launch vehicle technology."

And some in the press went along, as National Review's Jonah Goldberg writes: "8 YEARS AGO THIS SATURDAY the New York Times began its editorial on the Clinton-North Korea deal:

"'Diplomacy with North Korea has scored a resounding triumph. Monday's draft agreement freezing and then dismantling North Korea's nuclear program should bring to an end two years of international anxiety and put to rest widespread fears that an unpredictable nation might provoke nuclear disaster.'"


As for the White House, it's proceeding cautiously, says the Boston Globe:

"The U.S. government yesterday began assembling a united diplomatic front with China, South Korea, and Japan to respond to North Korea's startling acknowledgement that it had developed a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration also struggled to explain its different approaches toward threats posed by North Korea and Iraq.

"The White House said President Bush called the development 'troubling and sobering news' and would raise the issue with President Jiang Zemin of China during his visit to the United States next week."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "and other top U.S. officials struggled to clarify why they would seek a military solution against Iraq, which is alleged to be developing nuclear weapons but has so far failed to obtain uranium, and a diplomatic solution with North Korea, which has confirmed it has a nuclear program. Rumsfeld declined to specify the relative risks posed by Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il."

The prez, meanwhile, was engaging in a little brotherly love, according to the Miami Herald:

"President George Bush returned yesterday for the 11th time to the site of his contested 2000 victory to help his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, who has seen a dramatic lead shrink and appears headed toward a contest that could be nearly as close as his brother's election.

"But though strategists had hoped to use the day to bring some presidential cachet to the race, the Republican governor instead was forced to answer family questions of a different sort and was hammered by his Democratic opponent." The governor's daughter, Noelle, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for drug violations.

To no one's surprise, the gun control wars have erupted again, says the New York Times:

"The sniper shootings in the suburbs of Washington have produced an intense debate over whether the government should create a nationwide database of ballistic fingerprints, the supposedly unique markings that every gun makes on the bullet it fires.

"While both sides of the debate have taken predictable positions based on their ideology -- gun control advocates applaud it; the gun lobby attacks it -- their arguments have focused more on the technology behind it.

"'You can't question the technology,' said Randy Rossi, the director of the firearms division of the California Department of Justice. 'It is already being used to solve hundreds or thousands of cases.'

"But questioning the technology was exactly what President Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, did on Monday when he repeated the doubts that the National Rifle Association has long expressed about such a system. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. But, on Tuesday, Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush favored studying such a system, which the N.R.A. has also called for."

Wondering about the nonstop sniper coverage on cable? Check out this wire report in USA Today: "On Tuesday, Fox News Channel averaged 1.12 million viewers, CNN had 1.06 million and CNN Headline News had 294,000. For each network, it was the most-watched single day of the year, according to Nielsen Media Research." Those numbers are about double the usual figures.

Here's an interesting poll, by CNBC, suggesting that some folks might well engage in strategic voting on Nov. 5: 25 percent said they want the Republicans to control both houses of Congress, and 22 percent said the Democrats. But 43 percent prefer a divided legislature.

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way makes the pitch explicit in a new (and quite partisan) TV ad: "Today the White House and the House of Representatives are controlled by the right wing of the Republican Party. And with just one more vote they'll control the U.S. Senate. Their unchecked political power would be devastating for a woman's right to choose, our environment, social security, and corporate accountability. And could guarantee a Supreme Court controlled by the far right for decades.

"With your family's future at stake, should one political party have this much power?"

Of course, one party had that much power until Jim Jeffords decided to jump ship.

The New Republic's Peter Beinart finds the political dog that didn't bark:

"Election 2002 does have at least one ennobling characteristic: Race has never mattered less. This fall's campaign culminates a roughly decade-long decline in race's political significance. In 1988, with the murder rate skyrocketing, George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton as a proxy for white fears of black crime. But the steady drop in crime throughout the 1990s has taken that racially loaded issue largely off the table. In 1990, Jesse Helms secured reelection against a black opponent with his notorious 'white hands' commercial, which exploited white resentment against affirmative action. But the late '90s boom made 'angry white men' a lot less angry, and the GOP has decided that bashing 'quotas' loses them more votes among women and Hispanics than it gains them among bubbas.

"Welfare, the third leg in the GOP's racially coded triad, died as a political issue after Bill Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996. By 2000, George W. Bush was downplaying his opposition to affirmative action and his support for the death penalty in an effort to convince the United States he was a 'compassionate conservative.'

"But this year Democrats will likely take control of the governors' mansions in all of those states except New York (where incumbent George Pataki has swung way left to ensure his reelection). These newly elected governors--Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, Jim Doyle in Wisconsin--will give the Democratic Party what it sorely lacked in the '90s: a bench. Because of them, the coming decade could well be an era of Democratic policy innovation. And they are winning because in America's big industrial states, the suburbs no longer vote Republican against the Democratic cities. Which is to say, these elections are no longer being determined by race.

"The candidates most affected by race's declining significance, however, are black. And they are being affected in two ways. The more obvious effect can be seen in Texas, where Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas, is doing surprisingly well in his campaign for the Senate. One reason he's doing well is that the Texas GOP seems to think racially tinged attacks no longer work. When Kirk was nominated, his opponent, Attorney General John Cornyn, responded with an ad that featured a black child sitting on his knee."

The American Prospect chides the administration over the new-department-that-isn't:

"Let's get this straight. The White House resists creating a Homeland Security Agency for months. When the FBI scandals break, they quickly hop on board the Homeland Security bandwagon and the president urges Congress to pass homeland security legislation right away, without debate.

"Then the administration tries to use the legislation to strip federal workers of their existing collective bargaining rights, on the very thin pretext that the president needs 'management flexibility' to fight the war on terrorism. The Senate Democrats try to pass a bill that creates the asked-for Homeland Security Agency, as Joe Lieberman had been advocating ever since September 11, but without the special-interest union-busting. Republicans vote against that bill repeatedly, but still blame the Democrats for holding things up. And now Tom Ridge tells the New York Times that the Democrats are trying to 'strengthen' workers' rights in the midst of a national security crisis, which is incorrect.

"You have to give them credit. They really know how to bluster and lie."

Virginia Postrel says the Bali bombing has been way underplayed:

"If you're an American who gets most of your news from television, you probably think of the bombing in Bali in the same category as an earthquake in Armenia -- a tragedy with no effect on your life.

"After all, if it were important to Americans, wouldn't the TV news play it up more? Instead, we've been getting 24-7 sniper coverage (including about five minutes worth of new information in every four or five hours), with occasional nods to the importance of Cuba and the oh-so-surprising results of the Iraqi elections. And while the newspapers and magazines have done a better job, they're still sniper obsessed.

"The sniper story is legitimate, of course. It's scary, it's a mystery, and it's close to home, especially for the Washington-based press corps. But it doesn't deserve wall-to-wall coverage, especially when there's nothing new and intelligent to say. The Bali bombing, by contrast, is both a horrible tragedy and a huge international story, with major implications for the war on terrorism. This attack, like 9/11, was brutal, indiscriminate, and aimed at our culture and civilization. And on the other side of the world, it has had similar emotional effects."

Now a couple of pieces dealing with ethnic stereotyping. OpinionJournal's Collin Levy rips into the singer who dared take on Colin Powell:

"Here's to Harry Belafonte for coming through when we all really needed him. The impending battle with Iraq is stressful, there's a sniper stalking the Washington area, summer is over. For moments like these we pay our top entertainers so gloriously--they go well with beer, make us laugh and distract us from the world.

"Just like a trouper, Mr. Belafonte turned up on 'Larry King Live' Tuesday, pancaked and looking almost as he did 30 years ago crooning 'Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)' clad in a Hawaiian shirt. True, Mr. Belafonte didn't belt out any of his timeless hits. He was on the show instead to clarify some badinage from last week, when he was quoted likening his 'good friend' Colin Powell to a 'house slave.' To give the quote in its errant majesty, 'Colin Powell's committed to come into the house of the master.'

"Now, this is not just another case of a Tinseltown ego trying to display intellectual depth and political awareness. Somewhere or other Barbra Streisand must be going off about Iraq and the Bush administration too. But Mr. Belafonte's performance was outstanding for its revealing honesty.

"Mr. King asked Mr. Belafonte whether any of his Hollywood comrades thought he may have gone too far in slurring the secretary of state and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff just because he happens to be black man in Republican administration.

"No, said Mr. Belafonte, though some of his fellow Hollywooders 'thought that the public was going to have a big problem because the public does not come from the same kind of a sophisticated sense of history and all the different things that I've been exposed to.'

"This would have been a good moment to break into a chorus of 'daylight come and he wan' go home,' but apparently Mr. Belafonte meant his claim to intellectual superiority to be taken seriously."

And American Prowler's Francis X. Rocca wants to kneecap those who complain about "The Sopranos":

"To hear some tell it, Italo-Americans narrowly averted humiliation this week when organizers stopped a couple of TV actors from marching in New York's Columbus Day parade. Letting Mayor Michael Bloomberg bring along two cast members of 'The Sopranos' would supposedly have encouraged a widespread belief that people whose names end in a vowel belong to the Mob.

"William Fugazy, president of the Coalition of Italo-American Associations, denounced Mr. Bloomberg's invitation to the actors as a 'disgrace. -- Our parade is about heritage and pride. Certainly, the Sopranos haven't done much for heritage and pride in our community.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"If the parade organizers wanted to showcase 'positive role models,' they could have done worse than two accomplished Italo-American actors.

"The claim that Italo-Americans suffer discrimination and low self-esteem and God knows what other ills because they are identified with organized crime is transparent nonsense. Rudolph Giuliani -- after John Travolta the most famous and respected American with an Italian surname -- clearly relishes the Mafia mystique. His favorite movie is The Godfather, and he's been known to talk about making people offers they can't refuse. He's also a fan of 'The Sopranos.'

"It's tempting to think that Italo-American whiners, like their opposite numbers in every other interest group, are simply immune to irony, but I think they know what they're doing. They know that their constituency, by now long established in the middle class, is gradually being absorbed into generic white America. Once that happens, there won't be much 'community' for them to organize. So they keep ethnic consciousness alive any way they can, including through fear of discrimination."

By the way, Google News is a great service, but we continue to wonder about its all-computerized, no-human approach. At 10:40 a.m. yesterday, a headline said: "After a Four-Day Climb, Dow Drops on Intel Stock Slide -- Salt Lake Tribune - 7 Hours Ago." The Dow was up 190 at the time -- something someone with a 401(k) might have noticed.