Deja vu all over again? Legendary columnist Robert D. Novak penned this post-conventions analysis of the 2000 presidential race:

"Undeniable panic is gripping partisan Republicans," Novak said in a column that appeared four years ago yesterday, "from rank-and-file voters to seasoned political operatives, with two full months left before the presidential election. They are dismayed not so much about the surge by Al Gore but by the loss of confidence in George W. Bush."

"This mood," he wrote, "may reflect the very nature of the Grand Old Party." Novak quoted a Bush adviser who said, "When Democrats face trouble, they circle the wagons; Republicans head for the tall grass."

"Polling at the conclusion of the Labor Day weekend not only shows that the Democratic base has returned to Gore," he wrote, but also "more troubling are defections of vital independent voters from Bush."

GOPers were complaining that "Bush had permitted himself to be put on the defensive," and that since the GOP convention a month ago, "Bush has looked too much like Bob Dole in 1996."

Novak said the Bush campaign was much better than Dole's or Bush I's, but "still, Republican morale is drooping."

Just substitute John F. Kerry for Bush, and run it again?

Home of the Free and the Stupid

Speaking of Kerry, he's brought on some Clinton operatives apparently to help his faltering campaign. Could be just in the nick of time, judging from an interview Kerry gave in this month's American Legion Magazine.

Asked about a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, Kerry told the magazine: "If I saw somebody burning a flag, personally, I'd probably punch them out and stomp on them."

But Kerry, who doubtless could afford to post bail if arrested for assault, said he nevertheless opposes the constitutional change because he "fought for the right for somebody to be free and stupid."

I. Lewis, You Reporters

Speaking of bail . . . I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was out for a stroll in Des Moines around 9 Monday night when a boisterous and perhaps unsteady gaggle of reporters approached. They asked Libby which bar he was headed to.

He wasn't, but he pointed to the nearest store and said, "Bail bondsman, actually."

Well, guess a compassionate administration would go out of its way to make sure any stray reporters made it to the plane on time?

FDR and JFK: Ohio Who?

The political pundits always yammer about how no Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio. But, a legal scholar challenged us, has a Democrat won without winning Ohio?

Well, looks as if it's happened seven times, though only twice in the past 102 years. John F. Kennedy won in 1960 but lost Ohio, and FDR lost Ohio in 1944 but got a fourth term.

Before that, a string of distinguished presidents -- Grover Cleveland (twice), James Buchanan, James Polk and Martin Van Buren -- won the presidency without winning the Buckeye State.

Parked at the Park Service

Better late than never. . . .

This news release just in yesterday from the National Park Service. It's a statement by NPS chief Fran P. Mainella on the death of Laurance S. Rockefeller:

"I was deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of Laurance S. Rockefeller. The National Park Service and this nation have lost a dear friend and a committed conservationist. His legacy will endure throughout all time and continue to touch the lives of many generations."

He died July 11. Sometimes news travels fast; other times, not so fast.

Delegating Justice

Some Cabinet officers traditionally take a pass on political conventions. This year, for example, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft decided to skip the GOP gala in New York. But that didn't mean he had to hunker down in his office here. No, he was required to attend a symposium on crime and corruption.

And where might this have been? A Loop Fan called Thursday to say he spotted Ashcroft sightseeing and shopping in Bellagio -- no, no, not Las Vegas, but the real one, on spectacular Lake Como in Italy.

The symposium, sponsored by a consulting think tank called the Ambrosetti Group, featured lots of heavy hitters, including Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar of former Coalition of the Willing member Spain.

We hear Ashcroft & Co. took a pass on the exquisite Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni to stay in Cernobbio at the stunning Villa d'Este, which features a swimming pool floating on the lake, red clay tennis courts etched into the mountainside above and dancing on a lakeside veranda.

It's only $720 a night for a cheapo double, and about $2,014 a night for a one-bedroom suite, but the breakfast buffet is spectacular. And besides, it's not far from George Clooney's place on the lake.

Curiously, Ashcroft failed to take along his chief flack -- whose name even ends in a vowel -- Mark Corallo, who could have pointed him to a few good restaurants.