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It's an auction. A tobacco auction, it looks like -- except that it's taking place on the White House lawn, and the bidders are all fat-cat politicos. "This just in," a supposed TV reporter explains: "The Iowa caucuses have been canceled. The nomination is going to the bidder with the most cash."

Get it? It's a swipe, aired in Iowa, against George W. Bush, who has already raised $30 million in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The advertiser is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has raised a reported $100,000.

"The presidency ought to be about raising children, farm prices and standards," Alexander says to the camera, "not just raising money. I've been all over Iowa because the presidency's too important to be bought or inherited. It ought to be earned." Earned, he means, with old-fashioned press-the-flesh politicking, pandering (farm prices, indeed) and serious ideas. Not with big war chests.

Aha! A strategy!

Who can forget 1998, when former airline executive Al Checchi spent and spent to build a huge lead in the California gubernatorial race only to see the underfunded Gray Davis use Checchi's high TV profile as a bludgeon against him? The buying-the-election charges resonated with voters, who made Davis their governor.

In the California case, however, Checchi had advertised heavily and was indeed a ubiquitous TV presence. George W. certainly has amassed a fortune, but he hasn't started unamassing it. At least, not for TV spots.

Why would he? Every 5 minutes another newspaper anoints him the prohibitive favorite, with all the (so far) kind and gentle free publicity that comes with it. Will Iowans really believe Bush is buying the caucuses when, to date, he's spent hardly a cent? For such an appeal to work, voters will have to remember the Alexander spot every time a George W. ad does, eventually, come on.

In other words, Alexander has launched a pre-emptive strike against the hypothetical.

Here's the thing about pre-emptive strikes, however. They have to be devastating, which this ad, created in-house, is surely not.

For one thing, the cheap video production looks like a cheap video production. This may help Lamar seem to be an earnest, hardworking underdog. It also may make him seem pathetic.

Which is to say, even more pathetic. Well on his way to becoming the Harold Stassen of his day, Alexander was once a fairly credible, no-nonsense, conservative candidate. But after seven years of running for president, he somehow gets more pallid and obscure every day. He doesn't look tired, but he's fixin' to be Bushed.

That George W. has raised 3,000 times more money may prove that modern campaign financing is a perversion of democracy. It also proves that almost nobody believes Lamar Alexander will be president. For God's sake, he's from Nashville. You could fill Opryland with locals who can shake $100,000 from the seat cushions in their tour buses.

Yoo-hoo, Lamar. Wake up and smell the indifference.

While he may conceivably make enough of a showing -- say, fourth -- to keep his candidacy alive beyond Iowa, Alexander will never get the nomination by defining himself as the anti-Bush. He must find a way to portray himself as the sensible, sellable, salvation of the GOP.

But, of course, that's precisely how George W. Bush is positioned -- begging the

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