AUSTIN, Texas -- What ho, political junkies! Time for inside baseball.
Forget campaign finance, trade with China, health care, child poverty, family values, moral elevation, education and all that jazz -- let's talk politics. Now this is starting to look like fun; this is something more like it. Now we've got some action.
Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's gaining on Vice President Al Gore, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan may jump ship and go to the Reform Party, and the Republicans are so worried about having put all their chips (not to mention $50 million) on a guy who may not be ready for prime time that they look as confused as goats on AstroTurf. The media continue to dote on Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Republican women are really liking Elizabeth Dole. Ain't we got fun?
Of course, most of our fellow citizens regard all this as so much background noise -- sort of the way one regards golf if one is not a golfer -- something you see while flipping channels: "Oh, yes, there's some golf on television."
But for us junkies, these are palmy days.
On the Democratic side, I can attest from my own travels around the country that every serious Democrat not already signed up with Mr. Gore is saying, "You know, Bill Bradley could be a better candidate for us." This is sort of an unusual discussion for passionate Democrats, who are usually involved in some fratricidal battle over principle -- "I could never vote for a man who supported Bobby Kennedy over Gene McCarthy in '68."
The only Democrats who ever worry about winning are those boring dweebs in the Democratic Leadership Council, and everybody hates them.
But boring is our hallmark this year. You can't even get a fistfight started over NAFTA anymore. For lack of anything better to do, we're weighing candidates based on who's got the best shot.
And Mr. Bradley is looking . . . well, he's looking better than Mr. Gore, actually. According to the polls (can't be a junkie without those polls), Mr. Bradley comes up sharply to really competitive against Mr. Gore when Democrats who are mad at Mr. Clinton are polled.
Well. Since "Mad at Clinton" includes 99.2 percent of the country including his wife (the other 0.8 responded, "Who's Clinton?"), ergo, it stands to reason that Mr. Bradley would be a more attractive candidate.
But should Mr. Clinton be held against a worthy fellow like Mr. Gore? Now is no time for fairness, argue these Democrats (suddenly calculating liberals) -- let's think strongest candidate. My, my, my. The new buzz is that Mr. Bradley has gravitas. As soon as we tell people what it means, we can sell him.
Not standing Pat
Meanwhile, Mr. Buchanan -- my favorite racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic anti-Semite -- is once again proceeding to make things interesting for us all. I'm a stonewall Jesse Ventura fan myself, and if Mr. Ventura, the governor of Minnesota, says populists can be for Mr. Buchanan, that's OK by me. And I especially enjoyed watching Mr. Buchanan on the Sunday chats fielding questions about "the social issues."
"I understand the Reform Party does not take positions on the social issues," said the old cultural cleanser, "and they have to understand I'm pro-life and I won't change, but that can be worked out."
Flexibility is a wonderful thing. I see a great future for the Reform Party: If everybody who's tired of the Republicans and the Democrats joins it, it'll win in a walk.
Hint to Mr. Buchanan: Campaign-finance reform is a winning issue. The Reform Party should own that one. Mr. Bradley is getting a boost from campaign-finance reform, and so is Mr. McCain.
I have a problem with picking Republican candidates. Republicans never seem to like the ones I do.
I liked Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana in '96. I thought he'd be a good president, but he finished at, like, 2 percent. I still think he had gravitas.
Mr. McCain seems like more of a grown-up than the other Republicans, and he has a nice way of saying things so you get the impression it's what he really thinks, instead of some political blah-blah designed not to offend anyone.
But Republicans don't seem to like him, at least the establishment kind. I think they suspect him of having a sense of humor. They keep calling him a "maverick," as though that were something bad. They're very orderly in that party.
The Christian right may yet settle down and support Texas Gov. George W. Bush the way it's supposed to; he's been pulling it off in Texas for six years. But right now they're still restless and out there milling around Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes and my man Dan Quayle.
Perhaps the most interesting development on that side of the aisle is the utter repudiation of the Republican revolution of '94.
Bill Kristol and George F. Will have both pronounced it dead as a pharaoh's mummy. Newt Gingrich is in the past. Nobody does that anymore.
They may be surprised to learn that Governor Bush's political philosophy, to the extent that it can be discerned with the naked eye, is quite Gingrichian.
Well, it's festive season for us junkies, with promising developments if not actual fisticuffs ahead.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram.