The series at the American Enterprise Institute on how the four leading candidates would do as president closed on a high note. A Republican state senator from Texas named Bill Ratliff offered a quote from Shakespeare to explain the powerful effect George W. Bush exerts on people in his immediate vicinity.

In "King Lear," the king asks the Earl of Kent why he is offering his fealty at such a bad time and Kent replies, You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

It's a quality of the Texas governor that does not come through on television, Ratliff concedes, but close up, it is compelling. "People want to help him. He is engaging, engaged--and fun" the senator said. He adds of his resolutely low-brow candidate--who is more given to reciting his campaign commercials than poetry--that he "knows more Shakespeare than he lets on."

On Jan. 13, Ratliff joined Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan, three Texas reporters and a Democratic state representative named Steven D. Wolens, who cited examples of Bush's bipartisanship in his dealings with the Texas legislature. Among them they restored the portrait originally presented to voters of a competent charmer, a portrait smudged lately by doubts about Bush's intellectual heft.

Panel co-moderator David Brooks of the Weekly Standard offered a summary of the four sessions, which, he said, accurately reflected the personalities of the principals. Bradley, he said, came across as "intellectual and cerebral"; McCain as "chummy and vivacious"; Gore as "competitive and relentless"; Bush as "dignified and inevitable."

In some ways the session on Bradley was the most enlightening. On the Iowa plains and in the New Hampshire hills, he is fighting charges of "aloofness." His friends at the AEI panel on Jan. 4 illustrated that he was anything but when he was a legislator. No less an authority than Dan Rostenkowski, erstwhile chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee--who later did time for mail fraud--vouched for him.

Rosty said that when he first met the brainy basketball player, he thought: "He must be on my staff he's so bright."'

They worked together on tax reform in 1986, and Bradley did whatever it took. At Rostenkowski's urging, Bradley sought out the "wetheads," the young bloods on the committee who frequented the House gym; he plotted ways around various legislative traps. It was the same on the California water reform bill, which passed in 1992. On that, the expert witness was Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who detailed approvingly Bradley's shrewd coalition-building, his rounding up of environmentalists, farmers and fishermen. Bradley was hands-on all the way, and patient with the process, Miller recalled.

The McCain session on Jan. 6 coincided with the awkward disclosure of the senator's intervention on behalf of a campaign donor, so there was inevitably a great emphasis on his relations with the press, which are so good, David Brooks quipped, that "in a McCain White House, the press room would be in the Oval Office."

The question of McCain's popularity, except in the Arizona press, was canvassed. McCain's communications director, Dan Schnur, admitted that his candidate's uninhibited approach could cause "a two-wince day" on the trail. The continued love affair between the candidate and the press was explained by co-moderator E.J. Dionne Jr., a fellow at the Brookings Institution, which co-sponsored the series. "Other politicians yell at you," quipped Dionne, a Post columnist.

McCain's national co-chairman Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), told of other hazards in dealing with a candidate who is so ad hoc.

By contrast, the Gore session on Jan. 11 was uptight and unwaveringly on message. His two principal spinners, former chief of staff Ron Klain, and former domestic policy adviser Elaine Kamarck, spoke in the superlatives of the head table at a fund-raiser, describing a principled, disciplined, saintly paragon who deserved canonization rather than just the Democratic Party nomination. Klain, who left Gore's retinue after losing a power struggle with campaign chairman Tony Coelho, was exceptionally generous. He called Gore's hapless "no controlling legal authority" comment--offered at a news conference about allegations of improper fund-raising--an example of Gore's "truthfulness and candor."

The revelations were inadvertent. Former Republican senator Larry Pressler's characterization of Gore as a liberal caused both Klain and Kamarck to bridle and protest. "An old-fashioned word," Kamarck complained. Klain protested that Gore is "a modern-style CEO."

If "liberal" retains its toxicity for Gore, the Clinton issue seems to be receding. Gore's spokespeople spoke well of Clinton's record. And despite distancing and reports of chilliness, the relationship continues because Clinton counts on Gore's judgment, said John Harris, The Post's White House reporter and another panel member.

Former Democratic representative Jim Slattery, now a Washington lawyer, said later he could envision in October a joint Clinton-Gore platform appearance, with both exhorting voters to keep the good times rolling. The Bush tax-cut plan could threaten them.