After Bulworth, Primary Colors, Wag the Dog, Absolute Power, and the whole recent spate of darkly caustic political fiction, No Safe Place seems idealistic, even Capraesque, despite the fact that this new Richard North Patterson novel is rife with dirty tricks, adultery, deceit, and murder. For the first time in who knows how long (all right, since Air Force One, but did anyone really believe Harrison Ford as the President?), we’re presented with an American politician who’s not only good-looking and charismatic but highly principled, witty, immensely capable, admirably human. Wishful thinking? That depends, I suppose, on the measure of your own cynicism.

A flawed (but not too flawed) lawyer hero is nothing new in a Patterson novel, but what is new this time out is the hero’s turf. After establishing himself as one of the canniest, and most successful, writers of legal thrillers (Silent Witness, The Final Judgment), Patterson has abandoned the courtroom for the campaign trail. It’s spring of the year 2000. Kerry Kilcannon, U.S. senator from New Jersey, has challenged Vice President Dick Mason for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Although Mason is slightly robotic, a preternaturally careful smoothy with a down-to-earth, wisecracking wife, Patterson goes out of his way to assure us that he’s not modeled after Al Gore. Okay. Fair enough.) Heading into the crucial California primary, the contest is still too close to call. Kilcannon, however, is picking up strength in the polls — till he makes an unscripted remark that lands him in deep trouble with pro-choice voters. As he scrambles to undo the political damage and reassert his commitment to abortion rights, his candidacy is further jeopardized by a slowly brewing sex scandal.

Several years earlier, while he was still married (he’s divorced, amicably), Kilcannon had a long-term affair with Lara Costello, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Now someone in the Mason campaign has leaked word about it — and, more dangerously, the reason why it ended — to Nate Cutler, a reporter for Newsworld magazine. If Cutler is able to confirm the story, Kilcannon will be exposed as a hypocrite as well as an adulterer. Complicating everything, Costello, now working for NBC, has just been assigned to cover the last week of the campaign.

Meanwhile, Sean Burke, an anti-abortion terrorist with a private grudge against Kilcannon, has arrived in California after a killing spree at a Boston women’s clinic. Volunteering as a campaign worker, Burke positions himself to strike at the senator during a rally in San Francisco — just as, 12 years earlier, another assassin cut down Kerry’s older brother, Jamie, during his run for the presidency.

As always, Patterson labors tirelessly to get all the details right. You don’t need to glance at the acknowledgments page to know that he’s done his homework. Every element of the primary rings true, from strategy sessions and travel logistics to the decisions that go into mounting TV ads and choosing who rides in which limousine. But by this time, who in this country doesn’t know how a campaign works from the inside? Kilcannon’s positions on everything from welfare reform to youth programs are larded on so heavily that sometimes you could swear you’re reading a policy book, not fiction.

Uneven, often sluggish, No Safe Place suffers throughout from the sort of rigid, mechanical plotting that makes a story, no matter how strong, seem as predestined as an amusement-park ride. You’re always conscious of the writer doling out, or deliberately withholding, significant information, tooling each scene to snap perfectly, like a Lego block, into the next one. Everything fits, but nothing surprises, and Patterson’s two major story twists are so obvious hundreds of pages before they’re finally revealed that instead of being startled, most readers are likely to just shrug.

But for all its failings, No Safe Place is still uncommonly readable; as for Sen. Kerry Kilcannon — well, I’d vote for him, if only because he’s such a bracing, likable counterbalance to all the nutballs and weasels we’ve encountered recently in books and movies (not to mention on CNN). B-

No Safe Place