Texas Gov. George W. Bush never met Hymie Shorenstein, the Democratic leader -- make that, boss -- of Brownsville, the then-solidly Jewish community in Brooklyn during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Thanks to Theodore H. White, the peerless bard of American presidential campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan, we learned about Shorenstein's remarkable leadership, which regularly produced Democratic majorities of up to 20 to 1 from his constituency, and about the Shorenstein Rule -- the professional politician's unconditional preference for a strong and popular candidate at the head of his party's ticket.

As White told the story, one year it was Shorenstein's part of the patronage to select the Democratic candidate for judge. He chose a wealthy lawyer, who gratefully made a memorably large contribution to cover the costs of the party campaign being waged by Shorenstein. But seeing no billboards, buttons or bumper stickers supporting his candidacy or bearing his name, the nominee -- in mid-October -- expressed his anxiety to the Democratic leader.

According to legend, Shorenstein reassured his worried judicial candidate this way: "Listen. Did you ever go down to the wharf to see the Staten Island Ferry come in? You ever watch it and look down in the water at all those chewing gum wrappers, and the banana peels and the garbage? When the ferry boat comes into the wharf, automatically it pulls all the garbage in too. The name of your ferry boat is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stop worrying!"

In the early days of December 1999, after a couple of Republican presidential "debates," GOP officeholders and candidates who will be on the 2000 ballot learned their own variation of the Shorenstein Rule: Next November Texas Gov. George W. Bush will not be the name of the Staten Island Ferry that will carry them or their party to certain victory.

After the early debates, Bush's nomination may still be inevitable. After all, the Texan remains the overwhelming front-runner in a party that in nine of the past 10 presidential campaigns has nominated the man who, one year before the convention, was the front-runner.

But pierced, maybe shattered, is the widespread perception of Bush's invincibility. Now, in the party in which many had been so openly relying upon riding the Texas governor's coattails to success, more than a few are wondering if candidate Bush might have lost his coat.

Walter Mears, the learned Associated Press political writer, has likened the press's watching of presidential debates to the more ghoulish auto-racing fans at the Darlington 500. In both cases, what is hoped for is a slip-up, a pile-up or a smash-up. Bush committed no boners comparable to that of President Ford in 1976, who "liberated" Poland, which was still under Soviet domination.

But the front-runner projected -- and suddenly-concerned Republicans agreed about this -- neither the confidence nor the sense of command Americans expect in a president. His overly rehearsed and obviously scripted answers gave the impression of somebody who had previously been told, perhaps because of family connections, that he already had the job and now just had to go through the motions of an interview.

One Republican House member friendly to Bush and whose district Bill Clinton twice carried, commented after the second debate, "If he [Bush] wins, it won't be any blowout; it will be 51 to 49."

Bill Kristol, the conservative Republican thinker, has asked how Bush and the Republicans will effectively make an urgent case for change in 2000 since, when Bush's father lost the White House, U.S. unemployment was 7.3 percent (compared with today's 4.1 percent), the stock market was at 3,800 (compared to at or near 11,000 today) and the national crime rate has been dramatically slashed while the nation's welfare rolls have been reduced by half during the Clinton years.

The argument over who won the early Republican debates remains unresolved, but there is little argument among Republicans that the big loser was the Bush invincibility.