The political press, lacking a clear story line at the moment, is trying various subplots on for size.

Maybe journalists, who are as tired as those who stayed up to 1:20 a.m. Monday to watch the Red Sox edge the Yankees, are just yawning, so to speak, while they catch their breath.

For months now, the script has more or less been written for them: Would the Democratic convention give Kerry a bounce? Would Kerry be hurt by his slowness in responding to the Swift boat attacks? Would the Republican convention give Bush a boost? Could Kerry salvage his candidacy with the debates? Could Bush bounce back from the first debate? Could Bush bounce back from the second debate? Would Kerry be helped by sweeping the debates?

But in the final two weeks, with the candidates back to their basic stump speeches, the press suddenly seems more interested in endless stories about possible Election Day problems and recount screwups. Oh, and stories about how friendships and family relationships are being ripped apart, as in this U.S. News piece | http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/041025/usnews/25angry.htm. (I heard one talk radio caller say her boyfriend of two years left her after she said she was glad Bush prayed every night -- but when the caller said she believed all Democrats hate the country, the host said he would have left her, too.)

The default setting, of course, is always to check the polls, which show Bush with a lead (three points, says The Washington Post tracking poll. Eight points, says USA Today. Just one point, says the New York Times). So is the prez close to closing the deal? It all depends on the battleground states, turnout and so on.

But how to explain that after winning two of the debates or sweeping (like the Yanks failed to do), Kerry is again trailing slightly in the polls? That's the media dilemma. Maybe the country didn't like Kerry's performance as much as journalists thought. Maybe many people thought Kerry was the better debater but wouldn't necessarily make a better president. Maybe the Mary Cheney flap has slowed his momentum.

I've been surprised by how much "legs" this has had. Yes, it was not the smartest comment Kerry ever made, and yes, the Republicans have been pushing it hard in the post-spin sweepstakes. But it was still just one remark in a long debate. Another explanation is that media types just love to argue over hot-button issues that deal with sexuality (remember how long the Janet Jackson craziness went on?). I think it's filling a vacuum because there's no other dominant story line and because some reporters would rather not deal with the intricacies of Social Security reform.

As the New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2004/10/18/politics/campaign/18memo.html explains it: "In Mr. Kerry's mind, he was stating a well-known fact. Ms. Cheney is openly gay, and her father mentioned it at one of his rallies before the Republican convention. More significant, calling someone a lesbian in this era is hardly an insult in Mr. Kerry's mind, his advisers said.

"But to listen to conservative radio shows, or to talk to voters since the debate, it is clear that not everyone shares Mr. Kerry's view. Even some Democrats said that many viewers thought either that Mr. Kerry was outing Ms. Cheney, or that calling someone a lesbian was a schoolyard insult, a bit of behavior that was unseemly for a presidential candidate."

Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/782vkhgk.asp lets it rip:

"Was John Kerry born a shameless and ruthless opportunist, or did he choose to become one? In a way, who cares? Who knows how John Kerry became who he is? What is clear is that he is, as Dick Cheney put it, 'a man who will do and say anything to get elected.' And what is equally clear is that he shouldn't be elected president of the United States.

"Leave aside the cheap, cold, calculating cynicism -- and cruelty -- in Kerry's appropriation of the alleged opinions of an opposing candidate's family member to try to embarrass his opponent. Leave aside the view Kerry and his campaign must have of millions of religious Americans if they think this particular McCarthyite moment will work. Leave aside their fear of having an honest debate about a legitimate public policy issue -- same-sex marriage, the role of liberal judges in advancing it, and the proper response of the elected representatives of the American people. Leave aside the fact that Kerry's alleged opposition to same-sex marriage is manifestly dishonest and cowardly.

"Leave it all aside. How stupid does John Kerry think the American people are?

"Does he really think they will believe that he singled out Mary Cheney because he 'was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue?' Does he think they will accept his claim that he was saying something about the Cheneys' 'love of their daughter'? Of course, he wasn't."

Kristol, of course, said Bush "slaughtered" Kerry in the last debate.

Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel | http://thenation.com/edcut/index.mhtml?bid=7 is having none of it:

"Have you noticed that when Lynne Cheney thunders about being an 'indignant mother' she can't repress a smile? And when husband Dick says he's an 'angry father,' he's smirking?

"That's because they're actually far more pleased than outraged by John Kerry's mention of their daughter's sexual orientation in the last debate. Now they have an issue to distract the country from George Bush's awful debate performances. And the media, which drank deeply from Cheney's WMD concoction, has once again swallowed his deceptions -- hook, line, and sinker.

"It was Dick Cheney himself, who first brought up his daughter's lesbianism in the 2000 Vice-Presidential debate when he wanted to burnish his compassionate side, a quality never noticed much before and completely absent since. When John Edwards mentioned Cheney's daughter in this year's VP debate, Cheney thanked him for his 'kind words.'

"But within moments after the third debate between Bush and Kerry, Lynne Cheney was ready with a canned line of faux-indignation to feed the post-debate news shows. It's now morphed into an applause line in both mom and pop's campaign speeches. This isn't parental outrage; it is political theater from two of the most cynical people in American politics, and they have successfully manipulated the mainstream media once again."

William Safire | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/18/opinion/18safire.html?oref=login, meanwhile, is appalled:

"The memoir about the Kerry-Edwards campaign that will be the best seller will reveal the debate rehearsal aimed at focusing national attention on the fact that Vice President Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian.

"That this twice-delivered low blow was deliberate is indisputable. The first shot was taken by John Edwards, seizing a moderator's opening to smarmily compliment the Cheneys for loving their openly gay daughter, Mary. The vice president thanked him and yielded the remaining 80 seconds of his time; obviously it was not a diversion he was willing to prolong.

"Until that moment, only political junkies knew that a member of the Cheney family serving on the campaign staff was homosexual. The vice president, to show it was no secret or anything his family was ashamed of, had referred to it briefly twice this year, but the press -- respecting family privacy - had properly not made it a big deal. The percentage of voters aware of Mary Cheney's sexual orientation was tiny. . . .

"The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as 'soft on same-sex' as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency's eagerness to go to the polls."

I'm not sure I buy the notion that very few Americans knew about this. Mary Cheney is, after all, the gay liaison for her dad's campaign. But maybe it was less well-known than I thought.

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com raises the hypocrisy question:

"We've been inundated these past few days by Republicans bemoaning John Kerry's alleged gay-baiting in this campaign. Bob Novak, Bill Kristol, Bill Safire . . . the entire NRO crew, and on and on. They've referred to Kerry's comments in clear and bold terms: 'indecent,' 'shameless,' 'outrageous.'

"I have a simple question. Does anyone have a single leading Republican voice objecting to Republican Senate candidate Jim DeMint's statement that gays should be barred from teaching in public schools? Has any leading conservative criticized the RNC flier claiming that a vote for Kerry would mean banning the Bible and forcing gay marriage on the entire country? Has any leading conservative columnist criticized some of the anti-marriage state amendments because of their vast scope and banning of any protections for gay couples? I noticed that Jay Nordlinger did object to Alan Keyes' description of Mary Cheney as a selfish hedonist. But did Kristol? Or anyone else? The Cheneys ignored it. I'm just trying to be fair here."

Dan Kennedy | http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp wonders whether Mary herself was involved:

"THE 'L' WORD. It's not 'liberal'! Like most sane observers, I've been puzzled and disheartened by the apparent success the Bush-Cheney campaign is having over the issue of John Kerry's mentioning Dick and Lynne Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary.

"I thought Kerry's invocation of the Cheneys during last week's debate was awkward and perhaps unnecessary; John Edwards handled it better in his debate with Dick Cheney, probably because he was talking to Dad, not about him. But never would I have dreamed that the Republicans could score points by referring to Kerry's 'cheap and tawdry political trick,' as noted lesbian-romance novelist Lynne Cheney did last week.

"Now Paul Johnson, of 365Gay.com, reports that the furious Republican response may be have been the brainchild of M-Che herself. Johnson writes:

"Sources close to the Bush-Cheney campaign tell 365Gay.com that the idea came up in a telephone call between Mary and her parents immediately after the presidential debate Wednesday night.

"The younger Cheney, who serves as a backroom advisor to her father, suggested that she would continue to be a 'issue' for Democrats unless something was done to stop it immediately.

"If Johnson is right, then the temptation is to call this perhaps the ultimate in self-loathing, but I'm not going to go there. Even though she used to work as the liaison to the gay-and-lesbian community for Coors, and even though she has a prominent position in her father's campaign, Mary Cheney is known to value her privacy. She may have genuinely been getting sick and tired of hearing the Democrats drop her name every time the issue of same-sex marriage came up. Still, her parents' rhetoric suggests they are still not comfortable with their daughter's sexual orientation.

"What's truly weird about this is that the Cheneys and other Republicans have gotten away with practically accusing Kerry of outing a openly lesbian adult who is also a public figure. The Democrats must feel like the Red Sox getting flogged by the Yankees once again: How do they do it?"

Of course, the Red Sox did the flogging yesterday for the second straight night, so that should inspire Kerry.

Here's more on that New York Times poll | http://nytimes.com/2004/10/19/politics/campaign/19campaign.html?hp&ex=1098158400&en=15127dfb8295571e&ei=5094&partner=homepage, which has it Bush 47, Kerry 46 among likely voters:

"Two weeks before Election Day, voters hold a sharply critical view of President Bush's record in office, but they have strong reservations about Senator John Kerry, leaving the race in a tie, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"Mr. Bush's job approval rating is at 44 percent, a dangerously low number for an incumbent president, and one of the lowest of his tenure. A majority of voters said that they disapproved of the way Mr. Bush had managed the economy and the war in Iraq, and -- echoing a refrain of Mr. Kerry's -- that his tax cuts had favored the wealthy. Voters said that Mr. Kerry would do a better job of preserving Social Security, creating jobs and ending the war in Iraq.

"But a majority of Americans continue to see Mr. Kerry as an untrustworthy politician who will say what he thinks people want to hear. More than half of respondents said they considered him liberal, reflecting a dominant line of attack by Mr. Bush this fall."

As for the campaign trail, it's heating up, says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-101804campaign_lat,1,302530.story?coll=la-home-headlines:

"Entering the homestretch of his reelection campaign, President Bush unleashed a lengthy and intense attack today on Sen. John F. Kerry, warning that his rival's policies would raise the danger of new terrorist attacks in the United States. The charge -- the president's most blistering to date -- was based largely on selective citations of Kerry's comments and legislative record and appeared to signal a 'no-holds-barred' approach during the campaign's final stage.

" 'While America does the hard work of fighting terror and spreading freedom, he has chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism,' Bush told several hundred supporters in this Philadelphia suburb in southern New Jersey. . . .

"Campaigning earlier in the day in Florida, Kerry tried to preempt the president's expected attack by lambasting what he called the president's 'arrogant' approach to the war in Iraq. 'Despite the president's arrogant boasting that he's done everything right in Iraq and that he's made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to come out and it's beginning to catch up with him,' Kerry told hundreds of seniors assembled in a parking lot of a West Palm Beach retirement community."

The man who might have been running for reelection has hit the trail:

"Al Gore on Monday accused President Bush of deceiving the public about the reasons for invading Iraq and said he is so ideologically driven that he refuses to admit -- or even learn from -- his mistakes," says the Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0410190145oct19,1,3834414.story?coll=chi-electionsprint-hed.

" 'It is beyond incompetence -- it is recklessness that risks the safety and security of the American people,' the former vice president said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington. . . .

" 'He is arrogantly out of touch with reality,' Gore said. 'He refuses to ever admit mistakes. Which means that so long as he is our president, we are doomed to repeat them.' "

More news on the Sinclair Broadcast front: Here's my report in The Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43681-2004Oct18.html on the company firing a journalist who dared criticize its plans to air an anti-Kerry movie, after he spoke his mind to the Baltimore Sun | http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-te.sinclair18oct18,1,1814607.story?coll=bal-election-headlines.

Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine | http://www.buzzmachine.com/ is still buzzing about the Daily Show host ripping Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala:

"What's fascinating about the Jon Stewart takedown of Crossfire is not just what he said but how his message got distributed.

"Terry Heaton reports that there have been almost 400,000 downloads of the segment at iFilm (which is how I saw it) . . . in addition to countless (literally, countless) BitTorrent downloads. This was a flood of viral distribution that came from viral promotion.

"Welcome to the future of TV!

"In old TV, a moment like this came and if you missed it, you missed it. Tough luck. In new TV, you don't need to worry about watching it live -- live is so yesterday -- because thousands of peers will be keeping an eye out for you to let you know what you should watch (we call that metadata now) and they'll record it and distribute it.

"The really stupid thing is that CNN didn't do this themselves: Hey, we had a red-hot segment with tsunami star Jon Stewart strangling our guys with a bow tie; you should watch; here, please, look at this free download because it will promote our bow-tie boy and our brand and our show and give us a little of that Stewart hip heat. That's what CNN should have done. Instead, they'll charge you to deliver a videotape (what's that?) the next day."

That New Yorker | http://newyorker.com/fact/content/?041025fa_fact piece on The Note, which says it's Mark Halperin's world and the rest of us journalists just get to live in it, is now online.

I, of course, would never stoop to reporting the results of a sex survey, even if it is conducted by an organization as prestigious as ABC News | http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/News/story?id=174461&page=1.

Well, all right, just this one excerpt:

"When asked whether they had ever faked an orgasm, more Democrats (33 percent) than Republicans (26 percent) said they had."

I can see the slogan now: Get excited by the GOP--for real.