It is minutes before the debate. Sen. John McCain has just arrived and is closeted with aides in a cramped dressing room with no sink or toilet, but, incongruously, a huge shower stall.

I knock on the door and say I need to ask the candidate one question.

The candidate is busy, says the security man.

Just one question?

No, he growls, poking me in the belly.

Just then, McCain bursts from behind him, brushes past me and into another room. I follow, and suddenly, startlingly, we are alone.

"Senator, what's the funniest thing about running for president?"

The Republican from Arizona ponders this. The funniest thing, he decides, is the petty tyranny of some of the people who run the debates. He mentions one woman at a public TV station.

"I called her Nurse Ratched," he says. Arbitrarily, she herded two McCain staffers into separate rooms. When one of them, Mike Murphy, asked her to reconsider, she refused. Inventing furiously, Murphy said, "But he has my asthma medicine and I'm beginning to feel some pressure in my lungs!"

"The funniest part," McCain says, "is that Nurse Ratched didn't budge."

The senator heads off for the debate. I get to talking with one of his aides, and we agree McCain actually was wrong about the funniest part of running for president. The funniest part of running for president is that the abnormal becomes so normal--the absurd becomes so commonplace--that the senator did not seem to think it even worthy of mention, as an item of humor, that he had just conducted an entire interview standing at a urinal in a men's room.

Trying to find humor on the presidential campaign trail--amid all the punching and counterpunching--is a little like trying to find meaning in one of those 3-D Magic Eye paintings. At first glance, the whole thing just seems like a random mass of angry, boiling static, but if you relax your eyes a little, an unmistakable image pops up. (Hey! It's two kangaroos! Boxing!)

Last week was a busy one here, focused on the final two debates before tomorrow's Iowa caucuses, the first state election for delegates to the party conventions in August. There are eight candidates--six Republicans and two Democrats--and all were in town.

In the gymnasium that is home of the Theodore Roosevelt High School Roughriders, you don't have to look very hard to find the humor. It is happening on the basketball court, where the girls' home team is stinking up the joint. Overmatched by a visiting squad from Lincoln High, the Roughriders seem more like dainty sidesaddlers. The girls are chucking up bricks, missing gimme layups, losing dribbles out of bounds. They get bullied on the boards. They can't seem to cleanly inbound a pass. It's all the worse because up in the grandstands, watching the stumblebum comedy with a slightly pained smile, is one of the best basketball players who ever pulled on a uniform.

Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator from New Jersey and Hall of Fame athlete, is a lanky man, all leg and elbow. Because the grandstands are built for economy of space, Bradley's sort of wedged in there, knees kissing someone else's shoulder blades. There isn't much security in evidence, and if you're determined, it is possible to get--'scuse me, 'scuse me--reasonably close to him by teeter-toeing row to row. I plop down right behind him.

Bradley is here as a favor to his Iowa limo driver, whose kid attends Roosevelt. The candidate was given a warm welcome when he arrived, and before he leaves he will go down on the court and be handed a mike, and deliver a stirring speech about how sports teach courage and responsibility and perspective and resilience, and how the surest feeling of parental love comes "on a flat bench on a Friday night in a loud and hot gymnasium."

But at the moment the man who was an all-American at Princeton and played hip to hip with Willis Reed, Dave Debusschere and Walt Frazier, is watching some very bad basketball indeed. It's almost cruel, like forcing Leonard Slatkin to hear a kazoo band.

I ask: "So, senator, what advice would you give the home team if you were coaching them?"

On the court, a Roughrider is flagrantly traveling.

"The home team?" Bradley asks, rolling his eyes. "Nobody can handle the ball!"

We are surrounded by the parents of Roosevelt girls, and though Bradley is making a manly effort to whisper, people are craning to hear. Some do.

"Number 23 is really good," the senator exclaims to an attractive young woman beside him.

Uh oh. Number 23 is not a Roughrider. She is Linda Sayavongchanh, the point guard for Lincoln, and she is in fact very good. She sinks three-pointers. Her passes soar half the length of the court, leading her teammates in full stride for easy layups. As the amazing Linda steals another ball and drives to the basket, Bradley half-shouts, "Good hands!" The parents around us wince.

"Senator, what's the funniest thing about running for president?"

At that moment someone passes Bradley a small brown bag. It is filled with cold popcorn from the Roughriders' concession stand. The popcorn is curiously yellow, the color of Tweety Bird, and has an unearthly sheen, as though it had been coated with spar varnish. Bradley takes a mouthful and downs it.

"The funniest thing," he says, "is your diet."

Bradley is not particularly fond of reporters; he seems to think they are mean-spirited scoundrels who are always looking for scandal. And so his answers are cordial but perfunctory; he apparently prefers the company of the remarkably attractive, exceedingly young woman to his right, with whom he is engaged in intimate conversation. The senator's wife is not in attendance.

After the game (won by the Lincoln High Railsplitters, 68-42), I ask the profoundly attractive young woman if she had known the senator before the game.

"Yes," she said. "I'm his daughter."

Rats.

The campaign fliers say Republican candidate Gary Bauer has a major announcement to make at the Flying J Truck Stop in Clive, Iowa. But when you get there the place isn't near as fancy as it sounds. The Flying J Truck Stop is basically a Hardee's attached to a convenience store that charges 99 cents for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and $5 for the use of a shower stall.

I am thinking this is a strange locale for Gary Bauer, whose religious-right candidacy preaches a return to God and hearth and family values. The Flying J is a perfectly respectable enterprise, only it caters to trucker clientele, with the attendant ambiance. One T-shirt on sale reads "Whoop-Ass Ugly Stick" and it features a troll-like character brandishing a 2-by-4. He is saying: "Looks Like You've Had Enough."

The proprietors don't seem to have been told that Bauer's coming. A customer notices a bunch of reporters standing around and asks cashier Kris Williams what's going on. She shrugs and laughs. "I guess Son of Sam is coming to use the bathroom or somethin'."

Bauer never actually enters the store. He arrives and sweeps on back into the parking lot, where a small lectern has been set up.

Gary Bauer is not a large man. He has a small round face and pointy ears and looks like he should be squatting on a toadstool. Bauer is not sensitive about his height. He frequently makes jokes about it, as though to reassure people that it really doesn't bother him, that he is not angry or embittered about it, even though when he stands with his family it is quite dramatically apparent that he is shorter than his wife and shorter even than his son, who looks to be about 12.

Gary Bauer is against many things. He thunders against abortion, and against Communist China, which he sees as America's greatest enemy. He rails against the people who gave away the Panama Canal, and wants America to somehow regain control of it, lest (this gets complicated) Communist China take it over and in time achieve world domination. On this day, Bauer is talking about illegal immigration, which he is against.

He tells a knot of reporters that he has chosen this particular venue because it is a "great intersection" at which to make the point that "a great nation controls its borders." He says he was shocked to find that there are drugs in Iowa's schools, which he blames on lax customs enforcement. "When I am elected president," he says "I will control our borders."

Everyone knows why Al Gore and George W. Bush and Bill Bradley and John McCain are subjecting themselves to the hell of running for president: because they might just win, and it's a pretty darned good job. What is less clear is why people like Gary Bauer are running. The highest government office Bauer ever held was undersecretary of education under Ronald Reagan. Bauer isn't going to win squat. But as he stands here in the parking lot of the Flying J, looking like Eddie Munster in a suit and tie, I think I understand.

Imagine that you are cheesed off at something. It could be anything. Let's say you want cars to come equipped with toilets, and it really frosts your shorts that the automakers don't see the obvious wisdom of your plan. Now what if every time you decided to speak about this issue, reporters arrived, some of them from places like Sweden, to hear what you had to say, and every so often you got to discuss your plan with governors and senators and presidents of the United States, and they had to answer you, and it was all broadcast to a national audience. Why wouldn't someone run?

Bauer is done. He calls for questions. I ask him what the funniest thing is about running for president.

The funniest thing about running for president, he says, happened on the day he received an endorsement from Reggie White, the 6-foot-7 former football star. Bauer says he told White that running for president takes a lot out of you, and joked that when he began the campaign he was White's size. "He responded," Bauer says, "that when he was born, he was my size."

Bauer takes a few more questions and then leaves for a debate, where he will discuss his theories on national television with George W. Bush and John McCain.

Here's Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah, striding in a few minutes before the Republican debate. Hatch does not walk, he strides. He is an important man, a lawmaker of prestige and accomplishment, but in this race, so far, he is a non-factor. He finishes dead last in most polls, behind even Gary Bauer. Like Bauer, he is one of those candidates whose motives are not immediately clear. There is, in the press, a certain theory. I call it the coke-spoon theory. It goes like this:

If one day George W. Bush, the front-runner, is caught in a Shanghai bordello with a coke spoon up his nose, a floozy on his lap, and $2 million in Chinese yuan in his pocket, the Republican Party honchos will need to scramble to find an alternative candidate. They won't want John McCain, whom they are said not to trust because they think he is too much of a maverick. If that happens, Hatch will be waiting.

Anyway, that's the theory of why Hatch is running. Hatch says he is running because the country needs him and his ideas.

In the lobby, I ask Hatch what the funniest thing is about running for president.

"You look at all those guys--Washington, Adams, Jefferson--and you wonder how the heck it came to this," he says. "We're talking about the most powerful position in the world. I'm amazed at how little the people get to know the candidates, with 30-second TV spots. It's humorous the way we allow it to be this way."

Hatch is putting his money where his mouth is. In an effort to get people to know him better, his financially strapped campaign has purchased air time for an impassioned 30-minute infomercial that will be airing on two TV stations this night in Iowa, calling for a return to morality and family values.

You have to like this guy. But you don't have to like his chances. Some campaigns seem destined to fail. In a few minutes, Hatch will start the debate where, to good-natured laughter, he will four times shamelessly plug his infomercial. Twice, he will get the stations wrong.

The two Democratic candidates seem like college professors. You know how in college, every once in a while you would find a professor who rose above the drone, who imbued classes with excitement and stimulation and naked enthusiasm for life? Well, Gore and Bradley are the other kind.

They are erudite and knowledgeable, but their debates are a snooze. Also, they agree on virtually everything. One of the more electrifying moments in the Democratic debate here last Monday was when Bradley and Gore clashed over whether Bradley's proposal for Medicaid reform involved a "voucher system" or a "weighted average." Bradley was so laid-back that, as he took the stage, he appeared to be chewing gum. (When he talks he sounds as though he is yawning, and the words mosey out in a sort of listless drawl. He is running, he says, for Pres'n of the United States.)

There has been much written about the rather dramatic gender gap in this campaign: Among Democrats, women tend to like Gore and men tend to like Bradley. Among Republicans, women tend to like Bush and men tend to like McCain. Some theorize this is because of policy differences, others that Bradley's sports-star past and McCain's Vietnam heroism naturally appeal to men. Perhaps because it might be politically incorrect to do so, no one points out the obvious fact that Bush and Gore might appeal to women because of the simple fact that they are hunks, and their principal opponents aren't. (Don't laugh. Republicans selected Warren Harding as their candidate in 1920 in part because it was the first year women could vote nationwide, and Harding was considered a handsome feller, in a rectitudinous 1920s style. He won, and went on to one of the most ignominious presidencies in history.)

Bradley looks pleasant enough, though he has a pelican-like neck jowl and the highest ear-to-eyeball size ratio of any candidate since Lyndon Johnson.

With his silver-white hair and heartland features, McCain sort of resembles Johnny Carson, which is good for a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, like Carson, he also has a little quack in his voice, which is not so good for a presidential candidate. No one wants to hear a State of the Union address from Carnac the Magnificent.

Gore has the square, solid look of a prep school quarterback. Earlier in the campaign his efforts to escape his awkward, wooden public demeanor were almost comical; for a while he actually started barking his public statements, as though he had Tourette's syndrome. To assert his earthy masculinity, he started wearing greens and browns and you half expected him to show up for a state dinner one day in a bearskin thong. But he seems to have quieted down and now looks handsome and reasonably relaxed; he has worked on his delivery, and the only chink in his demeanor is that he has developed a curious metronomic head tilt when talking, sort of like Ronald Reagan, except he hasn't quite got it right and at times it looks as though he is inspecting himself in a mirror for zits.

Among all the candidates, Bush is the handsomest, and this is even more clear in person. He looks just like his father, but without that elusive weenie factor. He comes off as a man's man, effortlessly charming without seeming ingratiating. Bush's principal difficulty is a sense of thinness. Whereas the two Democratic candidates appear to have been preparing for the presidency all their lives, Bush seems as though he is planning to get around to it after lunch.

His public appearances have not done much to dispel the sneaking suspicion that the high shelves of his cupboard are a little bare. There was the famous TV ambush in Boston, of course, in which he had trouble naming some world leaders, but there's been other stuff, too. Bush manhandles words, for example.In one recent debate, he said people should speak plainly, and not "obsfucate."

But the public doesn't seem to mind this, and I am beginning to understand why, standing here next to Bush, onstage, moments after the end of the debate.

He is being mobbed by fans, who are congratulating him for what was, in fact, an impressive performance. Bush's eyes twinkle. He embraces you with his smile, which seems both folksy and genuine; it is as though you and he share some ironic secret, some little joke that the two of you, and only the two of you, are in on.

"So, governor, what is the funniest thing about running for president?"

Bush puts a hand warmly on my shoulder. He gives me a look that suggests this is the best question he's been asked by a journalist, ever. And he proceeds to give me a hilarious answer, the finest one I've gotten so far. Or so I thought.

Later, offstage, I read back his response. Here it is, verbatim, from my notes:

"There are these moments when the natural humor of the citizenry comes out, but I can't . . . [calling to a cluster of aides] Help me think of something funny." [Someone shouts something about George Washington.] "Right, a little boy was asking, was thinking that my dad was George Washington! I am always trying to find humor in life. I know it's important. I just don't happen to have anything else right now."

In my opinion, George W. Bush will do very well with the voters.

Here's Steve Forbes, rushing down the hall after the debate. I fall in step and ask the billionaire publisher what the funniest thing is about running for president.

"You learn that the funniest thing is what others write about you, about what you wear, reflects exactly what your own kids have been telling you for years. They were right!"

Forbes tries self-deprecation where he can. He tries to project an image of a regular guy, but it's a tough sell. This folksy image is belied by every campaign poster; Forbes is burdened with a name that is forever linked to the 500 richest, fat-cattiest companies in America.

But Forbes has a bigger problem. He projects very poorly on TV.

On the tube Forbes comes across like a florist in an exclusive neighborhood, or perhaps a headmaster in a rich boys' school. He has an unfortunate smirk he makes at the end of nearly every sound bite, a self-satisfied, pursed-lips sour-lemon smile that emerges whether he has just made a joke, or decried poverty in America. It's awful, and it is killing him.

Also, he seems to like the press even less than Bradley does.

Forbes has arrived at a local TV station early this morning to tape a live interview with Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson. The story of the day is that Forbes has become the snake, the nasty, disloyal Republican in this race, slamming front-runner Bush on his credibility on the issue of taxes, possibly making the governor more vulnerable to attack by a Democrat. Forbes is seated at an empty desk, alone in a room, with an earpiece, talking to thin air. Cokie and Sam are in Washington.

They ask him about being negative.

He's not being negative, he's being honest, Forbes says. Bush lied to Texas, he said, about not raising taxes. "He made a pledge. He broke it. Case closed."

Sam asks a question about the Confederate flag flying in South Carolina. This is a tough issue for Republicans, who do not want to alienate their core Southern conservatives. Forbes says something about only being willing to die for one flag, the American flag. The answer seems equivocal. Sam accuses the candidate of ducking.

"I've answered it, Sam, and I'm sorry you can't understand the English language," Forbes says, and then smiles The Smile.

In denying he is nasty, Forbes has out-nastied Sam Donaldson!

A few minutes later, on a local TV show, Forbes faces more questioning from a team of Iowa reporters. One asks: How do you respond to the feeling among many voters that you are "a rich guy trying to buy your way into the White House?"

A good question. The casual onlooker wouldn't be surprised to see Forbes, at any minute, light a cigar with a $100 bill. The entire Forbes campaign, in fact, seems fat and happy. His aides are seasoned professionals: cool and competent. They are older, less ideologically driven, and less hungry and lean--literally--than their counterparts in most other campaigns.

Forbes fields the question with aplomb. He has the country in his heart, he says. He is a political outsider, he says, but is not out of touch with the common man.

Meanwhile, outside the TV studio, two vehicles sit waiting. They are what the Forbes campaign has used this morning to ferry the candidate and eight other people to this suburban TV station. They are two full-size buses, each 30 feet long, and they sit outside for two hours in the chill Iowa morning, empty, engines idling, sending exhaust plumes into the sky.

Alan Keyes is very, very smart. Some might say he is too smart for his own good.

The former State Department official, a Harvard graduate, is an inspired sociopolitical theorist and a devastatingly skillful rhetorician. He is the only candidate who seems to be able to bring tears to people's eyes, as he did in a debate recently when he turned a technical question on helping the farm economy into a lump-in-the-throat monologue: "We lose the family farm, and we lose the nursery of America's moral character. Where did we get the young men and women who were willing to sacrifice themselves in battle? . . . We found them in the fields of America, behind the plow, nurtured in the family farms of this country. We cannot let that die, any more than we can let America's heart and individuality and courage die."

So why isn't this guy lapping the rest of the field, trouncing the fumblemouthed George W. Bush?

Part of it is that Keyes is a black man trying to run as a conservative Republican, which is not an easy task. But the larger reason is that to many, Keyes's views seem . . . well, bonkers. While the other candidates are haggling over trifling details of tax-cut plans, Keyes proposes doing away with income tax entirely.

Keyes also believes there is not, nor should there be, any separation of church and state. The entire Constitution, he says, presumes that all rights are given not by man, but by the Creator. Also, he wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

As usual, Keyes performs magnificently at the debate today. At the end, startlingly, instead of delivering a final statement like the other candidates, he bows his head and says a prayer for all of them, that they act with wisdom. Slowly, one by one, his opponents bow their heads, too. It's a shrewd move. If Keyes is bonkers, well, any trial attorney on Earth would want a part of such insanity.

The next morning, at breakfast in a hotel, I ask Keyes why his campaign isn't doing better than it is.

He's says it's doing great, that he is poised to win, but that the media aren't reporting it because it is against their liberal politics to do so.

"The media's trying to set itself up in America as a screening committee."

Ah. His Achilles' heel. To many who watch the debates, Keyes sounds angry and disdainful, even paranoid.

"You sound angry," I say.

"I'm not angry," he says angrily. "I'm passionate. Liberals dislike moral passion except in the service of their causes."

So do you think I am going to slam you in my article? Do you resent me?

"I have conditioned myself so that I will not think about it. You are to me like a summer storm. I do not like a summer storm, but I do not resent it."

Not angry?

"Not angry."

What is the funniest thing about running for president?

No pause at all.

"The incredibly silly questions media people often ask."

Most of the time, to find humor in politics, The Magic Eye approach works. But sometimes you can squint at a picture forever, and nothing funny happens.

I am at an art museum in a small city northeast of Des Moines. It's Martin Luther King Day and Bill Bradley has flown here to court the black vote.

Bradley's Iowa campaign seems kind of stalled. The polls show that he has failed to cut into Gore's 20-point lead, and time is running out. There have been recent pratfalls. Bradley has had to admit the embarrassing fact that he once missed a vote on disaster relief to Iowa farmers because he was on a tour promoting his book.

It's a small crowd at the art museum. Only about 100 of Bradley supporters have gathered to greet him. A meeting next door has attracted a crowd that is only a little smaller. It is a lecture on how to carve duck decoys.

A small table of limp crudites and congealed Swedish meatballs sits forlornly against a wall, untouched. Curiously, Bradley is introduced by a local campaign worker not as "the next president of the United States," but as "a man who has every intention of being the next president of the United States."

Things are uphill from there. Bradley moves on to a Martin Luther King awards dinner that is hosted every year by the local community college. Almost 500 people are in attendance, most of them black, and it would seem to be a terrific campaign opportunity. But what becomes apparent almost immediately is that Bradley is sort of crashing this party. He is not seated on the dais, but at a table in the middle of the room. There is some grumbling on the floor that this was not supposed to be a political event. A speaker pointedly mentions that the presence of a candidate does not represent a political endorsement by the group.

After Bradley makes a short address, and receives polite but unenthusiastic applause, a black TV sportscaster named Rick Coleman takes the mike.

Smiling sardonically, Coleman invites the TV crew, which is dismantling its equipment, to stay and film the remainder of the event. And then Coleman turns to Bradley and says, witheringly, "And Bill, you're welcome back next year, too."

It is not a good moment in a state campaign that started promisingly but seems to have run out of gas one week before the Iowa caucuses. Though there is irony, there is precious little humor to be found just now, and a whiff of defeat in the air, in this city named Waterloo.

Postscript:

I'd asked my question of seven of the eight candidates. Only Gore had been inaccessible, surrounded by the Secret Service, protected from louts like me. But I told his office I had one simple question to ask, and as this story went to press, the vice president phoned.

"What's the funniest thing about running for president?"

Pause.

"One-question press interviews."

"Does that happen to you often?"

"I'm sorry, that was two questions. You just blew it," he said, and hung up.

Here's Looking at You

That weird chaotic swirl of color on the front page? It's called a stereogram. If you look at it in the right way, the surface will seem to dissolve into a mirror like surface with a three-dimensional image in the shape pictured here. Here's how to see it: Hold the image as close to your eyes as possible. Let it blur. Now very slowly, pull it away to about 12 inches, trying to keep your eyes relaxed and unfocused. Think of trying to focus beyond the surface of the paper. Eventually, the image above should pop out at you. Good luck.