George Bush wore the reddest tie. Oooh, was it red. Perhaps that's a sign he's running scared. Whereas Bob Dole dared big: He wore a blue tie. Red ties are believed to add facial credibility on TV. Dole's so relaxed now, he doesn't even have to worry about what color his darn tie is or how it reflects on his face.

Dole looks mellow, assured, implacable, as if having arrived at the realization that he has an awfully good chance to be the next president of the United States. Most of the other Republican candidates, and most of the Democrats, are washouts on TV.

The candidates do try, though, and this weekend, each group put in one more ensemble performance in two debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters on the brink of the New Hampshire primaries. The Democrats met Saturday, the Republicans the following day. Both debates were live on CNN, and public TV aired taped Democrats and live Republicans back-to-back yesterday.

Not many people have followed this talkative roadshow from the beginning, but for those who have, it's become what may be TV's first interactive mini-series -- much of it set in whine country. The candidates are characters in one of TV's "continuing sagas," one marked by the occasional entertaining embarrassment or scintillating zinger, and the audience, or portions of it, gets to decide which characters stay and which go.

And so adieu, Al Haig, and thanks for your performance. We're going to miss a guy who can use words like "monitorship" without flinching. But the cast has to be winnowed down.

Media figures are part of the show, not part of the audience. It's become a sign of campaign manliness this year to mouth off to journalists or, better still, anchors. Thus did George Bush pick a fight with editor James Gannon in Iowa and, later, with Dan Rather on CBS. Gary Hart took umbrage at an innocent John Chancellor remark in another debate, and Pat Robertson later got testy with Tom Brokaw.

You could sense Brokaw's pleasure at the Robertson jab; perhaps he was jealous of all the attention Rather got. Maybe anchormen yearn to be attacked as much as politicians yearn to attack them. The question now is, who'll be first to take a poke at Peter Jennings? Who's going to call Ted Koppel a pompous little smarty-pants?

For some, the weekend debates were bound to mark farewell appearances. Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, Pierre du Pont and Jack Kemp may well be leaving the program once the New Hampshire results are in. Even Bush and Paul Simon are on shaky ground. None of the potential dropouts offered much in the debates to make one mourn their departures.

Watching the debates was a little like seeing hour-long versions of those Nissan think tank commercials, where the conceptual engineers sit around exchanging car platitudes and saying how hard it is to get kids to eat oatmeal -- except that with the candidates, you can always count on a spat to break out and disrupt the phony camaraderie.

Dole and Jesse Jackson are the most dependable wits among the candidates; a Dole-Jackson race in the fall would at least be lively. "Senator Dole," asked moderator Edwin Newman, "are television commercials a good thing for the political process?"

"Well, mine are," Dole said.

Later Dole needled Bush on support of the INF Treaty. "You were for it before you read it," he told Bush. "I wanted to read it first." Near the hour's end, when du Pont challenged Dole to sign a pledge not to raise taxes, Dole said, "I'd have to read it first. Maybe George would sign it."

Jackson's closing statement had energy and sarcasm. "You've heard some bickering and some pain on the stage today," he told the audience. "Someone wants to be secretary of commerce, someone wants to be an IRS agent, and someone wants to direct health and human services. I want to be president."

He helped Babbitt with a gesture when Babbitt was criticizing Richard Gephardt for reversing his position on whether he was a Washington insider or a Washington outsider. "That's not a flip-flop. That's a triple back somersault with a half twist," said Babbitt, his best line.

After an obstreperous heckler was ejected from the hall, Newman said, "That outburst did not come from one of the candidates," and Jackson added, "We don't think." Jackson brought a hearty ebullience to the proceedings. He seems to be enjoying himself. Of course nobody ever attacks him, so he can afford to be jolly.

In a way, though, being attacked indicates a certain prominence. The Democrats took turns roughing up Gephardt because he'd come in first in Iowa and has been getting lots of good press. No one bothers to attack Gary Hart over the sorry sex scandal that scuttled his candidacy -- they'd risk earning him sympathy -- so he does it himself, bringing up the incident in self-sacrificial ways.

"My family and I have suffered a great deal . . . from the private mistake I made," Hart said. Earlier he volunteered, "We make mistakes, and I of course have admitted to mine." He referred to the character issue as "the so-called character issue."

Robertson has been using a variation on this technique, the righteous indignation pose over an insult never delivered. It was Brokaw's referring to former television evangelist Robertson as a former television evangelist on NBC's excellent, and mercifully succinct, Iowa caucus report a week ago, that made Robertson crabby. "That's the last time I want to be called a television evangelist," he growled, insisting he was instead "a religious broadcaster" and accusing Brokaw of "religious bigotry" with his terminology.

On CBS later that night, Robertson told Rather he was "a businessman" and said, "I think a person shouldn't be judged on how he used to make his living." He said at the debate that it would be unfair to judge him by things he said when he was a religious broadcaster. Perhaps Robertson's slogan should be "Born Yesterday."

The heckler at the Democrats' debate stole the show in its opening moments and it never quite reached the same level of electricity. The man raved, "We are fed up with a Democratic Party that uses its ability to promote the homosexual and abortion agenda! Particularly Governor Dukakis . . ."

At this point he was hauled out of the room, though he did not go gently, while members of the audience shouted "Boo" and "Get outta here." Michael Dukakis, who'd been answering a question when the man rose, complained, in jest, "I'm out of time."

Bush and Babbitt sounded sheepish. In his closing statement, Bush said, "I don't talk much, but I believe; maybe not articulate much, but I feel." He's been sort of mousy since getting creamed by Dole and Robertson in Iowa. Babbitt said, "New Hampshire has within its grasp the power of life and death over my candidacy . . . I don't expect to win the New Hampshire primary, and I don't have to win."

It sounded an awful lot like a chorus of "Bye Bye Babby."

Kemp, on the other hand, came off as desperate. One of the funniest moments in the Republican debate came when Bush pleaded that we "give peace a chance in Afghanistan" and Kemp leaped onto his high horse, guns a-blazing. "You should be embarrassed, to have a Republican talking about 'give peace a chance,' " he complained.

Yes, imagine!

In his closing remarks, Kemp emitted such dazzlers as, "I believe in the people of this country" and "Our children are our future." There was also a lot of talk, from everybody, about an oil import fee, most viewers probably having no idea what an oil import fee is all about and not caring much who is for or against it.

To emphasize that election year 1988 is not a multimedia event but in fact an omnimedia event, the candidates continue to spend quite a bit of their media time complaining about one another's use of media. Albert Gore and Gephardt got into a big thing about whose ads were mean and whose ads were fair, and they tussled over whether certain of Paul Simon's commercials were uncouth while Simon just sat there, sinking into his suit.

Gephardt said a Simon ad charged Gephardt could not be trusted and that "I think that goes over the line." Gore asked him why he insisted on taking these things personally. This led naturally into a tiff about last week's remarks from Gephardt campaign manager Bill Carrick, quoted as having said of the other Democrats, "I hate all of them. I think they are the phoniest two-bit bastards that ever came down the pike, starting with Al Gore ..."

"What your campaign did in attacking me was personal and profane," Gore told Gephardt, licking imaginary wounds.

Sometimes it all gets to be so much fun that you can't quite believe it's news and not entertainment; the line between real and surreal has been trampled quite a bit already in this campaign. Home Box Office will take an inventive step at smudging it some more tonight with the premiere of "Tanner '88, the Dark Horse," a clever two-part mocku-drama about a fictitious candidate named Jack Tanner and his progress in the primaries.

On Part 1 tonight (at 10 on HBO), Tanner, played by a Hartsy-Kempish Michael Murphy, encounters real-life politicos obligingly playing themselves. Pat Robertson tells Tanner, "We wish you the best." He ignores the question "What about this Christian hardball we keep hearing about?" Bob Dole says, "Oh, you're closing the gap, right? Well, we've got 'em on the run ... Good luck and we'll see you in November."

Gary Hart stops slogging through the snow long enough to say, "Good luck to you. Hope it goes well." The comedy was written by Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman, and they've given the production a satirical edge so slick and deadpan that it's hard to tell it from a real backstage documentary.

On Part 2, "Tanner '88: For Real," which premieres March 15, Jack Kemp will be among those appearing, although an HBO spokesman said last week that Kemp became "so hammy" before Altman's cameras that his footage was almost unusable. In other words, the reality was too broad for the satire. This is a real switch. But we're living in a day of real switches.

As funny as the actual candidates can be, it was reassuring to be reminded on the latest "Saturday Night Live" that the satirists can still outdo them. Guest Dan Aykroyd's shrewdly executed caricature of Dole and Al Franken's Cheshire-grin portrayal of Robertson were great political cartoons come to life, the kind of thing that can help make these long, long primary seasons worth enduring.

And so we have another contest on our hands, the contest between the satirists and the satirized to see who can be funnier. "Saturday Night Live" scored a victory for the former.

As for that other big race -- the one between the candidates and the media -- it does appear to be escalating. CBS News has been accused of dumping heavily on Bush in retribution for his cheeky slapping of King Dan. In a very ginger way on Iowa caucus night, just before a commercial, Rather told viewers, "Vice President Bush declined our request to be interviewed on this broadcast."

But Rather is making nicey-nice with other candidates, referring to Robertson during caucus coverage as "Dr. Robertson" (a first, perchance?) and bidding adieu to Paul Simon with, "Please give our regards to Mrs. Simon." Yes, and all the little Simons, too.

On the other hand, candidates may feel that politicians have become so discredited and disliked that the only way to grovel back into favor is to assail a class the public hates even more, the media class. It does make you wonder who will win in November: the politicians or the media? And, oh yes, the Republicans or the Democrats?