Think of the election year as a championship fight, Dan Rather said. We're two rounds in -- and have 13 to go.


Make that, cosmic sigh.

A low, mournful, anguished moan perhaps.

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary now over, we plow on to Super Tuesday, March 8. Nobody seems excited about it but the journalists. Even many of the candidates look fed up. Oh it's a long, long time, from now to November. And all the political yakety-yak on television makes it seem longer.

Apparently one can still count on the occasional blow-up, set-to or dress-down to enliven the rituals. During NBC's prime-time hour on the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw asked Republican winner George Bush and runner-up Bob Dole if they'd like to say anything to each other over the network link.

"Just wish him well and we'll meet him in the South," Bush said. And did Dole have a message for Bush? "Yeah," snarled Dole. "Stop lying about my record!"

This gruff but refreshing candor immediately resurrected the issue -- at least for reporters and pundits -- of whether Dole is too cranky to win the nomination. But over on CBS, crankiness was definitely out. Bush and Rather met again on the air for the first time since their now-famous pie fight on "The CBS Evening News" -- this time on tape, not live.

In the interview, part of the CBS late-night New Hampshire report, nothing was said about the previous encounter nor about the Iran-contra affair, a subject that an NBC poll showed had figured hardly at all in the way New Hampshire Republicans voted.

"Mr. Vice President, thank you for being with us," said Rather cordially. "First of all, congratulations. Solid win here, impressive comeback." Bush looked coiled but did not strike. He had a "go on, I dare ya" grin on his face, but Rather went overboard to be friendly. Perhaps the feud is over. Bush can go back to fighting with Dole again.

Rather said yesterday from New York that he was aware of no special negotiations necessary to bring the interview about. He learned at about 7:30, before going on the air with election inserts in "48 Hours" at 8, that Bush would be available.

"This was your standard victorious-candidate interview," Rather said. "Arrangements were made in a routine manner. It went off in a routine manner. I try to get at the issues and do my job, and assume he tries to do that as well. He was professional and doing his work."

Rather said that for a few days after the "Evening News" confrontation, Bush staffers would not return calls from CBS News, but that lately there have been no problems. Asked if relations between Bush and CBS News were thus back to normal, Rather said, "I'm not being facetious when I say I don't think they ever left being normal."

Brokaw, meanwhile, had a reunion with former TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who'd given him a testy reprimand after Iowa for referring to him in an introduction as a "former television evangelist." Robertson contended that smacked of "religious bigotry." But Tuesday night Brokaw introduced Robertson as a "former television evangelist" again and got no complaint.

Timothy Russert, NBC News executive vice president, said yesterday the phrase "is not meant in any pejorative sense. We don't see the difference between 'TV evangelist' and 'religious broadcaster,' " a term Robertson has said he prefers. "He can be referred to as both as far as we're concerned." Rather continues to insist on addressing the candidate as "Dr. Robertson."

Actually, the key word for Brokaw Tuesday night was "impressive." He began the broadcast saying Bush had logged "an impressive victory" by "winning impressively" and although there'd been talk Bush would falter after losing to Dole in Iowa, "he pulled it out impressively." Dukakis was "expected to win impressively" and did, Brokaw said.

In his wrap-up at the conclusion, Brokaw said of Bush that it had been "an impressive victory for him."

Most impressive!

Brokaw also had a subtly unsettling tiny moment on his show, well after Dole bit Bush. Brokaw welcomed Gary Hart to the studio for a live interview and began it by reciting the bad showing Hart had made that day and the fact that an NBC News poll found 70 percent of the Democratic voters were irritated with him for reentering the race. After all that bad news, he asked Hart, "Can you go on?"

And Hart just started to laugh.

A cackly, eerie, creepy kind of a laugh. A too-loud laugh and a too-long laugh.

Why is this man laughing?

Over on CBS, Rather once or twice got lost in his own sentences, as can happen when you're winging it live. Thus his description of New Hampshire as having once been considered "a retail state" as opposed to a wholesale state -- "that is, a state in which person-to-person, man-to-man, or woman-to-woman, woman-to-man kind of campaigning on a very personal, eyeball-contact level makes the difference."

Gee, he left out man-to-woman contact.

Mostly, though, Rather's folksy, frisky rat-a-tat is infectious. Determined to inject pizazz into proceedings many regard as stubbornly tedious, Rather exploded onto the air with jargon blazing.

The challenge to Bush, he said, was "to get up and get out from between a rock and a hard place here in New Hampshire." Dukakis "won by a snowslide." There was "a pileup for runners-up on down, in both parties. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona hints it could be 'adios, amigos' for him as soon as Thursday," while insiders were predicting that Paul Simon may be through "but you know how wrong the hunch bunch has been up to now."

Referring to the night as "Primary One," Rather told viewers that Super Tuesday would be "the monster, the big 'un ... a whole different kind of campaign free-for-all coming up." Brokaw is businesslike and smooth and coolly in command, but he just doesn't seem to have his heart in it. Rather has his heart in it and he won't rest until yours is in it too.

As for Peter Jennings of ABC News, he didn't get on the air with a full report until midnight, because of the evening's Winter Olympics coverage. Jennings promised viewers that in ABC's report there would be "no interviews with candidates, winners or losers," but the program did include sound bites from winners and losers claiming victory at their campaign headquarters.

One had to bleed a little for Jennings much earlier in the evening when sportscaster Jim McKay led up to a news break during Olympic coverage by bragging that "ABC World News Tonight" had won the ratings last week -- for the first time in 20 weeks, but McKay didn't mention that part. McKay made it sound like a magnificent triumph. "Congratulations on that, Peter," he said, "but more to the point," how about those New Hampshire primary results?

"Much more to the point, Jim," Jennings said sternly from New Hampshire, clearly mortified. An ABC News source said Jennings was displeased and disturbed by McKay's drumbeating, but understood it was done innocently.

Rather made a reference to the Olympics late in his program. "Well, obviously, if you like skiers, this is not the place to be on television tonight," he said, "but if you like politics, you have to like this story." Actually, it was more skaters than skiers that night. And it's becoming increasingly clear that you have to like politics more than may be healthy in order to find this saga scintillating.

The little tiffs and spats that erupt during the coverage, whether between candidates or between candidates and reporters, may seem staggeringly trivial, but they do relieve the punishing ennui of "I have a vision for the country," "Our children are our future," "leadership for the '90s" and the ever-popular "My opponent wants to raise taxes."

Even the pictures have become tiresome. George Bush drives a tractor. George Bush drives a truck. George Bush throws a snowball and looks like a jerk. Jack Kemp bags groceries, Albert Gore goes bowling, and Pat Robertson goes a few rounds with a sparring partner who's a born-again boxer.

Johnny Carson loves to ask his studio audience who watched the latest presidential debate (the candidates are on more than he is) and then laugh uproariously when scarcely anybody applauds. But apathy is no joke. What's the remedy if television coverage of primaries actually discourages interest and participation? Less coverage? Fewer primaries?

Maybe the candidates are getting on everyone's nerves, maybe the TV reporters are, too, and that goes double for the hunch bunch. But the primaries and the story must go on. Nobody ever said democracy would be easy. But there were those who thought television might make it easier. They appear to have been wrong.