WASHINGTON - The country now has the exciting prospect of voting for a man who can't say what he means or a man who says too much. Bushisms vs. Gore Talk.
By now, even school children know Texas Gov. George W. Bush has a Dan Quayle problem - he knows what he means but it often comes out of his mouth in a puzzling way. For example, when Mr. Quayle made a speech on the need for abstinence as a way to avoid AIDS, he said, "My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will never, never surrender to what is right.''
Hard to imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt inspiring Americans with such declarations as "My friends, we have nothing to fear but not being afraid.''
Mr. Bush's most famous example of misspeak was his admonition in South Carolina that Arizona Sen. John McCain could not "take the high horse and claim the low road.''
There are more. The day before Super Tuesday in San Diego, Mr. Bush was talking about the need to give the military a new mission. "The mission must be to fight and win war and therefore to prevent war from happening in the first place,'' he thundered.
After he beat Mr. McCain but before he was told he had to make up with Mr. McCain despite the bitterness of the primary battles, Mr. Bush said, "I didn't like what was said" by Mr. McCain about Mr. Bush's trip to Bob Jones University. But, Mr. Bush said, attempting to be gracious, he wouldn't talk about a "log in my neighbor's eye'' without taking account of the log in his own.
It's as though Mr. Bush doesn't listen to himself talk. When he was criticized for speaking at the university, which at the time banned interracial dating, he defended himself by noting that his brother Jeb is married to a Mexican-American woman and that he did not approve of the university policy.
"I denounce interracial dating,'' he said repeatedly. "I denounce interracial dating.''
To prove he is not a bigot, he protested, "The Catholic Church is a great church.''
That should help the Pope relax.
On the Today show after he won Super Tuesday, Mr. Bush was asked if Mr. McCain should pull out of the race. He responded, "Mr. McCain has to make a decision, and I don't think he will.''
Most people are sympathetic with Mr. Bush over the pushy TV reporter who ambushed him with the trick pop quiz about foreign leaders with strange-sounding names from strange-sounding places. But Mr. Bush didn't entirely learn his lesson.
When a comic posing as a reporter said in an "interview'' aired on CBC with Mr. Bush that Canadian Prime Minister "Jean Poutine'' had endorsed him, Mr. Bush said without a pause, "I appreciate his strong statement. He understands I believe in free trade. He understands I want to make sure our relations with our most important neighbor to the north of us, the Canadians, is strong and we'll work closely together.''
First of all, the Canadian Prime Minister is named Jean Chretien, not Poutine (which refers to a Quebec dish of fries and cheese curd), and no Canadian prime minister would even think of endorsing a U.S. candidate in a primary election. Mr. Bush, son of a former president, should know that.
Second, Canada is the only neighbor to the north.
Third, Mr. Bush has terrible syntax - far worse than his father, who merely skips nouns as in, "wouldn't be prudent.'' Or "don't do hypotheticals.''
But Vice President Al Gore gets no prize from the archivist of the Great Speeches Department either.
Now that he's comfortable (having ditched his tie, dress shirt, and jacket for a knit sports shirt in olive, navy, or brown), he can talk for hours. Sometimes you can spy the cleaning crew waiting in the wings for him to finish.
And he likes to embellish, following the old saw, "Why spoil a story for want of facts?''
There can't be more than four or five Americans who don't know that Mr. Gore took credit for the Internet (he now jokingly says that his hyperbole - he was a senator who voted to fund the military's project that led to the Internet - was his biggest mistake).
He told a reporter on Air Force Two that he was the inspiration for the hockey player whose wife dies in the movie Love Story. He wasn't.
He said he grew up working on a farm in Tennessee. Actually he went to school at a top prep school and lived in a posh Washington hotel during the school year because his father was a senator. He did spend summers on his family's farm.
Mr. Gore seems to have curbed his exaggerations lately, sticking to solemn speeches about vision, campaign finance reform, "sensible'' tax cuts, saving Social Security, guns, education, trade.
My, those October debates will be fun.
In the words of the Texas governor the day after Super Tuesday, "The hurdle is talking to the people. I know exactly to whom I must speak, and it's the people of this country.''
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau.