Finding it difficult to read newspaper reports on the upcoming presidential primaries without breaking into a drooling, cracking yawn? Can't remember which Democratic candidate has the most compelling new 10-point education initiative? Sleepy, listless, depressed? Don't feel alone -- we're all suffering from Primary Malaise. What we're going through at this time is, in layman's terms, a lull in an already-more-boring-than- normal race that, unfortunately, has come right after a more-exciting-than-normal period of campaign bloops and blunders. Remember those heady days? For months, news fans were so distracted by the continuing blare of Donnagate, Ersatz- goodoratorygate, Attackvideoleaker- firedgate and Zanypreachercandidategate that many people forgot about the viable, non-exploding presidential aspirants who were still stomping around Iowa and New Hampshire. We got completely caught up in the glitz of campaign blowups. Now there aren't any more blowups, and we're all left staring into the relative void of preview straw polls, cattle shows at events like the South Central Iowa Federation of Labor's "Solidarity Feast" and ultra-civil debates. And in case you think I exaggerate the boringness quotient, consider this rousing sample of applause lines being used in Iowa.

1. "I will never apologize for America!"

2. "My name is service!"

3. "In 1980 Ronald Reagan asked, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' My question is, 'Are you safer than you were $2 trillion {in defense spending} ago?' "

4. "We need to have a president who understands rural America and small-town America."

5. "You don't give cold turkey to the American farmer!"

6. "I try to remember who I am and how I got where I am and where I'm from . . . I am one of you."

7. "I am the only farmer in this race!"

8. "Paul Simon is a great guy except for one thing -- a bat died on his chest!"

The lines belong to: 1. George Bush; 2. Jesse Jackson; 3. Richard Gephardt; 4. Paul Simon; 5. Alexander Haig; 6. Robert Dole; 7. Al Gore Jr.; and 8. Haig again. Don't feel guilty if you failed to recognize any of them. As you can see -- with the brilliant exception of Haig's bow-tie crack -- these lines don't have high distinguishability. With this kind of oratory in the air, is it any wonder that even Washington's normally gung-ho policy geeks are talking about other subjects? Here we are a scant three months from the Iowa caucuses, and I can't even remember the last time an excited young Hill windbag cornered me at a party and peppered me with small wet flecks of chewed Dorito while delivering a lecture on Mega Tuesday and the importance of "full delegate slates."

And you know what? (I never thought I'd say this, but here goes.) I miss it. A lot. I want it back the way it was.

That's why I decided to take a bizarre step -- to personally launch a policy-talk revival. To this end I spent three beady-eyed days in the Library of Congress, inking myself to the elbows by wallowing through recent issues of national and Iowa newspapers. My intent was simply to gather material for an upcoming Geekfest at my place. (Which is still on, by the way. Call me if you're interested -- I'm providing the chips and soft drinks; it's BYO on the back issues of National Journal and highlighter pens.) But in the course of my research, I made an important bonus discovery about "Snoozegate": It's not just the candidates' fault. The media are to blame as well.

Here's why. Ever since Jimmy Carter put Iowa on the primary map in 1975, the Iowa caucuses have been a fun time when candidates are forced to sacrifice all dignity as they schlep around the state posing with livestock, stepping in cow patties, wolfing down State Fair food and generally prostrating themselves before blase' farmers and supermarket checkers. Unfortunately, now that we're in our third season of Iowa mania, jaded Big Media reporters have taken to passing quickly over such details and getting right to "the issues." (And we know where that leads -- straight to the snooze pallet.) Think about it. When was the last time The Washington Post or The New York Times ran a picture of a candidate competing in a rooster-crowing contest or helping deliver a calf? I think it's important to observe a man's poise in such situations -- doing so gives us an idea of how he'll perform as president when it comes time for that Thanksgiving photo session with the hormone-crazed "national turkey." Sadly, even the Iowa dailies have started to harrumph their way past these scenes. In '75, when Jimmy Carter made his name in Iowa, The Des Moines Register was a charming regional paper that ran front-page stories with headlines like "Ford Family Dog May Be Pregnant." Now it's all serious reportage and analysis. I read through every August and September 1987 Register without seeing even one candidate in an Indian headdress.

And don't think the candidates haven't noticed. If this stuff doesn't get space, why do it? Consequently, they're being even stiffer than normal. At a debate in a hot Iowa auditorium last summer, none of the sweltering Democrats would take off his coat until all had agreed to do so -- nobody wanted to be the only one looking like a farm-implement auctioneer. Bruce Babbitt has been taking "anti-head- bob" lessons so he can look more stable on camera. When The Register reported that Pete du Pont is a crack Putt-Putt golfer, his staff tried to downplay this interesting news ("Aides . . . sheepishly concede their boss likes miniature golf"). And the Bush campaign, of course, has been notorious for its lack of zest from the beginning. "We're moving the ball just fine," a sleepy Bush consultant told The Post. "Unless they make you put it in the air, why do it?"

There is hope, however. The Democrats are now occasionally disagreeing, the Republicans show signs of waking up, and Gen. Haig has been consistently peppy. An Iowa reporter who followed him at the State Fair heard him shout for "a foot-long hot dog, with onions!" Also, he's closing speeches with catchy rhymes. ("I don't want you to be vague, vote for Haig. Shake a leg for Haig.") More encouraging still, bored Iowans voted with their eyelids in the September straw poll and Bush finished third. Since then he's come on strong with the "getting closer to the people" stuff. One day he walked through a Des Moines neighborhood and, according to The Register, "stopped briefly to play basketball with a half-dozen boys . . . Bush took off his coat and sank several baskets . . . Bush impressed {neighborhood resident} Ray Fortune: 'I'm not a Republican, but I'm very impressed with him.' Would he vote for him? 'Today I would. He was just in front of my house!' "

See, guys? Fundamentals is the name of the game. ::