Caddell, Mellowing Out On the Coast? Not!

* Until he phoned yesterday from the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles, where he's a script consultant for NBC's "The West Wing," we were actually beginning to miss Patrick Caddell. He's the renegade pollster who at 21 was Democratic standard-bearer George McGovern's public-opinion czar, went on to become Jimmy Carter's political guru in the White House and then set off on quixotic adventures as various as the New Coke, the anti-Establishment presidential quest of Jerry Brown, and trying to influence the oracular Warren Beatty.

"I'm having a ball, frankly," the 49-year-old Caddell told us about his work on the new show. "It's the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on. It's easier than real politics, because you can actually say something without having to deal with all the normal problems of candidates and campaigns. The show is very sophisticated and we're doing some interesting discussions and issues--a lot of which the American people aren't allowed to hear about, because God forbid we'd get off into anything that was meaningful" in real politics.

Caddell has also been working on two TV movies, writing speeches for a political comedy that Carter White House colleague Jerry Rafshoon has sold to Ted Turner, and serving as executive producer on NBC's "Y2K," a so-called "new millennium suspense thriller" to air Nov. 21. Caddell sounded positively cheery. That is, until we stupidly suggested that NBC was going to broadcast a computer apocalypse. Suddenly he was shouting--"I'm going to back out of this interview right now! I will not allow you to put words in my mouth!"--and then we remembered why we hadn't called him in all these years.

The Sinking Of Marita II

Sounding understandably shaken yesterday, USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen tried to find something positive to say about a terrible experience last Friday morning, when she and husband Bill Leary--but not their two beloved cats--survived the sinking of their nearly new $200,000 cabin cruiser two miles off Tilghman Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

"The moral to the story is to be grateful that when it was over we were standing there in the sunshine," Jurgensen told us, describing the end of a week-long cruise in the Albin 33-plus-3 Express Trawler that they've owned only since April. The cause of the mishap was still a mystery yesterday, and Jurgensen didn't tell us about her cats. According to a source at the newspaper, she's so distressed by their drownings that her secretary has cautioned colleagues not to raise it with her.

"We were motoring along in the bay when we began to lose steam and then the engines cut off," Jurgensen told us. "My husband tried to restart the engines and I went down to see what was going on. There was water coming over the transom door. And I said, 'Bill, we're going down.' "

The boat, Marita II, quickly swamped in 18 feet of water as Jurgensen and Leary tried to climb into a Zodiac inflatable raft. Leary smacked his head on the cabin roof as he tried unsuccessfully to untie a kayak. The boat submerged and they grabbed for life preservers floating in the open water. Luckily, Jurgensen said, they waited only five minutes until the occupants of a charter boat fished them out. "We told them, 'We are the biggest things you'll catch today.' One woman gave me a big hug, saying 'You look like you need it.' "

THIS JUST IN . . .

* In case you're wondering who the Funniest Celebrity in Washington is, there's actually a contest Nov. 3 to determine the answer, as well as to raise money for the Child Welfare League. Among those competing for the oxymoronic title at the Improvisation Comedy Club will be MSNBC personalities Cynthia Alksne and Paul Begala, Newsweek pundit Howard Fineman and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). "Let me just say that Norman Ornstein will not be writing my material," Lieberman told us, recalling one of last year's competitors, who raised hackles with off-color jokes about his and his wife's sexual practices. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has agreed to chair the contest. "My role as chairman," he said, "is not to show up."

* Our friend Laila Ali, the 21-year-old daughter of Muhammad Ali, has announced her opponent for her Oct. 8 professional boxing debut at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. She's former amateur April Fowler.

* Women's World Cup soccer champion Mia Hamm will lead the Fannie Mae Foundation's Nov. 20 Help the Homeless Walk. Last year the charity event raised $4 million.

CAPTION: Laila Ali, hitting the ring Oct. 8.

CAPTION: Just call it her "Vote for Me" hairdo. Possible New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has gone from a longer, less shapely cut to this short and sleek coiffure--a transformation carried out at the White House residence yesterday morning by her longtime stylist Isabelle Goetz of Cristophe. "This is the shortest she's gone," the salon's publicist, Michelle Delino, told us. The first lady's spokeswoman, Marsha Berry, was equally short: "It's just her choice."