What has gotten into National Economic Council chief Gene Sperling, White House watchers are wondering.

The wonkish Sperling spent his first 40 years as a mousey, rumpled, out-of-shape, bachelor workaholic. Now he's feeling so formidable he almost didn't live to be 41.

First glitzy W magazine called him "the capital's hottest catch" in July. He's been jogging regularly and lost 20 pounds in recent months. This week, Sperling is on a rare vacation watching the U.S. Open tennis matches.

Last week, fresh from a spell on the beautiful sands of Bermuda, he breezed into the Federal Reserve's economic policy retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Sperling went for a jog, carrying a little throwaway camera. As he was going along an earthen dam by Jackson Lake, he spied two moose chomping away down below amid some willow bushes and he stopped to take a shot.

He edged closer and closer for a better angle until he was barely 10 or 15 feet from the exceptionally surly and dangerous beasts. Fortunately, the moose ignored the wonk.

A National Park Service employee told the city boy, "I think I'd better go call the stupid police," Sperling later told reporters.

Sources speculate it may have been the abrupt shift from Bermuda to 7,000 feet in Jackson Hole that flattened his brain waves. Or maybe it was the long run of economic good times?

AIG May Be in the Market for Rubin

Speaking of a key player in the economic boom, former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin is the subject of multi-rumors in New York, where investment companies and foundations and such see him as the ultimate catch.

A strong rumor is that he's being lured to join the board of insurance giant--and major Republican contributor--American International Group, which is operating big-time in China. AIG would be gaining the super-connected Rubin as the controversy over China's entry in the World Trade Organization goes on.

The Tractor Factor

Sharp-eyed political types say the front-running Gov. George W. Bush presidential campaign is displaying great philosophical flexibility. At Bush's first coming-out event in Iowa back in June, there were two tractors in the background as he spoke at a main event. Problem was they were red tractors made by Case International, which has no facilities in Iowa but does in Texas.

But Wednesday, the tractor faux pas was retracted, our source says. The background pair this time was green, as in Iowa's John Deere tractors. "He's just making the transition from governor to president," one observer deadpanned.

Letting the Air Out of Hillary's Tires

Federal legislation sometimes addresses major problems such as defense spending or welfare overhaul. Other times, it seems there is a much narrower problem that is on the minds of the lawmakers.

Take an amendment to federal election law offered the other day by Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), though the coding on the amendment indicates it was drafted in House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's office:

"If a candidate for election for federal office (other than a candidate who holds federal office) uses federal government property as a means of transportation for purposes related (in whole or in part) to the campaign for election for such office," the candidate's campaign committee "shall reimburse the federal government for the costs associated with providing the transportation."

Let's see. What candidate could possibly be affected by this amendment? Using "government property as a means of transportation" to campaign? Surely not first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Great Leap Forward: NLRB to Diplomacy

Former National Labor Relations Board chairman William B. Gould IV, now back at Stanford Law School, took time out in a recent speech to slap some Hill adversaries around. Gould, speaking to a Nebraska State Bar group in Omaha on Flag Day, praised some lawmakers, especially former senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), who he said was "thoughtful and Lincolnesque."

"The most arrogant and boorish individual that we encountered in Congress was a Democrat, David Obey of Wisconsin, someone completely swelled up with a sense of self-importance," Gould said, "though Republican Ernest Istook of Oklahoma certainly took a close second."

My, my, my. Obey aide Scott Lilly said Gould's opinion may have been sparked by Obey's demanding that Gould resign. Seems Gould had appeared on ads against a California initiative to make union dues voluntary, opining this would hurt unions and Democrats.

Obey agreed on the merits but "felt Gould was out of line" and "overly partisan" and thereby harming the agency in its battles with GOP opponents. "This hardly reflects those [arrogant and boorish] qualities," Lilly said.

Istook's office didn't respond, but he and Gould had crossed swords at several contentious hearings over GOP moves to trim the agency's sails.