In the end this election is probably not going to turn on something important. The October surprise, the grand, explosive news finish everyone talks about, is less likely to close the deal than some dopey, misappropriated sound bite that cuts through to the undecided airheads. The Mary Cheney flap brought this home with a vengeance, as the latest Wall Street Journal poll showed with Kerry slipping in four battleground states after the third debate. The one thing a candidate can't do when looking for sly new ways to put the boot in is behave out of character. Never in a million years would the elegant, stentorian John Kerry lean across the dinner table and say, "So, Dick -- how's that LESBIAN daughter of yours?" -- let alone do the equivalent in front of 50 million people.

Even though Kerry spent Friday compounding his tonal mistake about Ms. Cheney by failing to do one of those apologies that begins, "Had I known I might be hurting the feelings of blah blah blah" (and further compounding the error by allowing Mary Beth Cahill her own galumphing she's "fair game" gaffe), he clearly knew he'd screwed up. After two days of being bashed on the subject, he looked 90 years old in his interview Friday night with CNN's Candy Crowley.

Grayer, because he can no longer risk getting a much-needed brunet rinse lest he incur the metrosexual charge. Ashen, because he can no longer take the chance that Internet split screens will show his pallid self beside a suspiciously oranged-up, sun-lamped version. And creased with furrows, because it's not worth the flak if Teresa's Botox guy gets caught with his little black bag on his way up to the campaign suite. Kerry looked heartsick as he trudged back over his debate points about less important things, such as the terrorist magnet Bush has made of Iraq.

At this precarious moment any distraction is a disaster for Kerry, even when it's Bill O'Reilly's sexual harassment problems. Gleeful Democrats who could have been spending useful hours signing up disenfranchised minority youths to vote instead spent whole mornings poring over the Fox moralist's phone-sex fantasies. The dazzling details could be found at the Web site where mortification lives: According to one of the site's founders, William Bastone, the harassment complaint filed by O'Reilly's accuser, his producer Andrea Mackris, is the most popular viewing page in the Gun's seven-year history, beating even the 57-page transcript of Kobe Bryant's interview with the police about the alleged rape in Colorado.

Legal filings have become the new, easily available docu-porn. Ever since the Starr report, what used to be the knowing gossip of the power elite has become democratized so all can share. Why should lawyers, plaintiffs and investigative journalists be the only ones to regale each other with the details of what O'Reilly would like to do to Mackris in the shower with a luffa mitt?

Amateur novelists can read the complaint for its definitive character study. The technologically minded can ask how O'Reilly can manipulate a vibrator and hold a phone at the same time. Sociology students can note that despite O'Reilly's insistent blue-collar shtick, many of the alleged harassment scenes take place in Da Silvano's, the chic Manhattan restaurant that's a favorite of Vogue editor Anna Wintour. What happens if the audiotape surfaces on the day of the election? Whole precincts of swing voters would stay home and play it.

One side effect of docu-porn is how it lowers the bar for what's acceptable to talk about at the office. Just as Kenneth Starr gave oral sex its social debut as a topic for the water cooler, so Bill O'Reilly, on the eve of his book tour for "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families," has made phone sex and vibrator preference the small talk at curriculum night. Part of the frisson of docu-porn is knowing that we are all one click away from an e-mail or a cell-phone leak from our own personal theaters of embarrassment. After Eliot Spitzer's latest swoop on the e-mail of the Marsh & McLennan insurance company, Wall Street honchos were reminded again this week that the only way to escape the scythe of the New York State attorney general is to take your hard drive for a ride every weekend to the Gambino landfill.

The truth is that every new piece of technology is put to the service of America's addiction to gossip, and only a world-shaking event like a terrorist outrage puts us temporarily into rehab. This is one of the strangest aspects of the post-9/11 world. How fast we returned to fiddling while the new Rome burned! The candidates have to confront it every day. Political trivia jousts for our attention with entertainment trivia -- and forget everything else. Unless it can be reduced to a reality-show narrative, it's unlikely to penetrate the haze of fun media alternatives.

At my local dry cleaner after the last debate, I encountered a young female undecided whose political mood swings I have been unscientifically tracking. "Made up your mind yet?" I asked brightly between gritted teeth. "Well, Kerry had the best facts," she replied distractedly, "but I'm sort of drifting toward Bush.'' Huh? "Well, Kerry telling the world Dick Cheney's daughter was a lesbian was, like, really unfair." No time now to point out that it was Dick Cheney, not John Kerry, who reminded the world of this fact on the campaign trail. Put your money on it: Airheads are going to be the definitive swing voters on Nov. 2.

(c) 2004, Tina Brown

The harassment complaint against Bill O'Reilly is a popular read.