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Letterman and Oprah help fire up the presidential race

But Ty Burr wonders if Gore versus Bush will end up like the movie ”Election”

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Letterman and Oprah help fire up the presidential race

Dubya’s been fighting the wrong battle.

For the past few weeks, George W. Bush has rigorously been trying to control the scenario for the upcoming Presidential debates, seeking to A) minimize the size of the viewing audience and B) avoid any format where Al Gore could whomp his butt through superior wonkitude. But while Bush has been fussing, Gore has, bizarrely, taken the pop culture low road, getting down with Oprah and appearing on ”Late Show With David Letterman.”

Wait a minute: Wasn’t George W. supposed to be the easygoing party guy and Gore the inert solid? What’s going on here? Just more shape shifting and confusion in this, the most riveting Presidential campaign since, I don’t know, Rutherford B. Hayes duked it out with Samuel Tilden.

Bush has apparently given up on his bid to torpedo the three 90 minute, all network debate scenario proposed by the high priests of the Commission on Presidential Debates (who ARE these guys, anyway?). The Texas Governor had been holding out for one 90 minute free for all plus head to heads with Gore on CNN’s ”Larry King Live” and NBC’s ”Meet the Press” — more tightly moderated shows with, not coincidentally, a smaller viewership than a jointly broadcast meeting would allow.

While it’s unusual for an underdog candidate to be demanding LESS exposure rather than more — in fact, this is the first time it has happened in the modern debate era — it makes perfect sense. Gore has, to a fault, command of the factoids. Bush seems like a nice fellow to share a beer with. Pitting the two of them against each other, issue to issue, would be… well, remember last year’s ”Election”? Think Reese Witherspoon debating Chris Klein.

So what in Sam Hill is Gore doing on ”Oprah”? Doesn’t he know he’s already leading with women voters to the tune of 14 to 20 percent? It may be that his advisers have smartly figured out the debates are Gore’s to lose: If Bush manages simply to hold his own without being reduced to stammering, misfiring ganglia, he’ll be perceived as a clear ”winner.” (Don’t you just love media logic?) Likewise, a charisma contest is Gore’s to lose, so Al’s buffing up his cool dude image like a student body president slipping into penny loafers. First stop, ”Oprah,” where he high fived Winfrey on her choice of stiletto boots (nice coaching, Karenna!), quoted Bob Dylan from memory, sat by as the host played the infamous kiss shot from the Democratic National Convention with lubricious commentary, and — oh, yes — castigated the entertainment industry for marketing violence to children.

Did we say this was getting weird?

Who knows what Gore will do on ”Letterman” Thursday night. He doubtless won’t be playing the sax like Bill Clinton did on Arsenio back in ’92 (we’ve learned what those horn solos lead to), but he’ll probably allow himself to be made mild sport of, thereby proving he’s as hip to his perceived stiffness as the rest of us. And at best, maybe we’ll get a Stupid Vice President Trick.

Bush is slated to appear on ”Oprah” and ”Late Show” as well, but it’ll be a different vibe entirely. You can bet Winfrey won’t be so lovey dovey as she was with Gore, and I’m not sure how relaxed Dubya will be able to get with Letterman, a man who has questioned the candidate’s intelligence more sharply than just about anyone else in the media. In the end, if Bush wants to find a sympathetic pop culture forum, he may have no choice but to hit the hustings on ”Raw Is War.” Now, THERE’S a place to hold a debate.