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Tonight at the Emmy Awards, we'll find out if West is best. Fans of the complex, hugely successful sophomore show will have to wait until Oct. 4 to discover the outcome of last season's cliff-hanger.

The first thing you notice is the space.

Walking into the Oval Office, its cavernous space takes your breath away. High, majestic ceilings. The president's stately, walnut-colored desk. A huge presidential seal in thick carpet at the center of the room.

But a sharp-eyed White House aficionado strolling through the uncannily accurate set of NBC's The West Wing might notice one small discrepancy (besides a couple of couches on the wrong side of the room).

The anteroom where real-life President Bill Clinton conducted his rendezvous with intern Monica Lewinsky doesn't exist here. Instead, at the archway where the real Oval Office leads to that infamous room, there's a wall adorned with a small picture.

It's a fitting omission for a series that always has presented presidential politics as we might like it to be.

But star Martin Sheen, the odds-on favorite to win an Emmy tonight for his portrayal of President Josiah Bartlet, demurs when asked if he's playing an idealized Clinton. He is loathe to take potshots at a president who says he's a fan of the show.

The actor does allow that his series focuses on a White House staff struggling to meet noble goals, a contrast with Hollywood's usual jaundiced view of politics.

"It puts a name and a face on real, honest devoted public servants," says Sheen. "These are real, heroic people, and for the first time the public gets a glimpse of that."

Viewers have rewarded The West Wing with strong ratings and status as NBC's most successful sophomore show.

Tied with HBO's The Sopranos as most-nominated series with 18 Emmy nods, West Wing is poised to rule the TV industry's biggest awards show tonight; further proof that, sometimes, quality really does win out.

A smart show for a smart audience

Co-executive producer Kevin Falls says the show works because of West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin's scripts, which marry smart dialogue with stories that don't pander to audiences.

One example: A recently re-broadcast episode about the president's attempt to influence campaign finance reform by stacking a federal commission with his own appointees.

Viewers don't learn until halfway through the show what Bartlet is up to, though they're kept engaged by repartee over how the president will get one official to take a job as the ambassador to a tiny island nation.

"Aaron gives the audience a lot of credit," Falls says during a brief tour of the show's set, built with lots of room to allow for its trademark fast-paced walking and talking scenes.

"He doesn't mind telling the story and letting you catch up ... (and) he's a firm believer that a story doesn't have to be neatly tied up in the end," Falls adds. "Audiences love that."

One look around the show's set reveals another West Wing advantage: close attention to the details.

The Roosevelt Room, dominated by a long, sturdy table and two huge portraits, boasts a fake Nobel Prize. Star Rob Lowe, an L.A. Lakers fan, has draped team memorabilia in the office of his character, deputy director of communications Sam Seaborn.

Former Clinton aide Dee Dee Myers and former U.S. Senate staffer Lawrence O'Donnell are among the consultants/writers who help maintain the show's verisimilitude. And with his ABC comedy Sports Night now canceled, Sorkin is expected to write almost every episode next season, increasing expectations for quality.

There are a few shortcomings, including a lack of diversity among the core cast and dialogue so stylized that different characters sometimes seem to speak in the same voice.

Still, there's little doubt the show resonates with fans of smart, serious TV drama.

"It did shock me ... the response to the show," says Bradley Whitford, who plays cocky deputy chief of staff Joshua Lyman. "We had people (in Washington) saying, "When you do a show on the Census. ... 13-, 14-million people watch it all the way through.' None of us expected the sort of power of being able to talk about these things in a way that people will watch."

The show also uses another curious technique to fuel enthusiasm. Even though the White House staff constantly grouses on screen about falling poll numbers and their inability to press initiatives, viewers rarely see them lose a fight.

"That's the secret ... we also used on Sports Night," Falls says, laughing. "You wind up welcoming those victories, even though they may be Democratic ones ... because they're the underdogs."

Mr. President

Sheen has developed a reputation for supporting underdogs _ whether he's rallying for pacifist causes or helping son Charlie deal with substance abuse problems and sordid personal escapades.

So he has plenty of forgiveness left for a president whose extramarital affair nearly brought down a White House.

"(Clinton) is one of my heroes," says the 60-year-old actor, who has reportedly been arrested more than 60 times for participating in protests against nuclear power, among other issues.

"He's caught up in his own sins ... personal sins. Big deal. Who isn't?" the actor says breezily. "The old man is far better than I could ever dream of or we could ever dream of ... (and) it's going to take us a long time to realize that."

Watching The West Wing is often a joy simply because of Sheen. His witty, down-to-earth President Josiah Bartlet is the role of a career.

"They say the time to do a series is when you're starting out or ending up," Sheen says with a wink. "If this is how I'm going to end up, I wouldn't mind going out as a retired president."

Sheen plays Bartlet as a folksy politician who shrouds his intelligence with an impish wit and strong moral compass. One moment he's joking about hoping to catch a college softball game on TV, the next he's threatening to bomb a nation into dust over the death of an American.

Not bad for a part that originally was supposed to surface on the show every few months.

"As soon as they saw the Oval Office, they realized, "That's an American icon,' " Sheen says. "Everyone knows who works there, and they might be remiss in not filling that in a little bit."

But co-star Rob Lowe, a friend of Sheen's family since age 13, says he always expected Bartlet to dominate the series.

"The irony is, if you look at the first show, he's got the best part in that one, too," says Lowe, who has been denying reports that he was miffed by Sheen's growing role for months. "How could you have a show about the White House without having the president in it? I just assumed it would be like that every week."

Warning: spoilers ahead

Here's where we start speculating about the new season. Don't keep reading if you think we'll ruin the suspense.

The show's cliff-hanger season finale featured a sniper who shot at the president's staff as they left a town hall meeting. A jarring burst of violence on a show known mostly for verbal pyrotechnics, the display sharply divided some fans and left open the question of who may have been hit.

Sheen will only say that the shooters were racist skinheads gunning for Bartlet's daughter Zoey and her African-American boyfriend, Charlie Young (Dule Hill), who also serves as the president's aide.

"A lot of criticism we've heard is, "How could the Secret Service let him be so vulnerable?' " says Sheen. "That's answered in the story. The first episodes of the season (beginning Oct. 4) are a two-parter on the ramifications of the shooting ... that's all I can tell you."

At a party for journalists and TV writers in July, West Wing scribes remained tight-lipped. One suggested looking at which actors have two-year contracts.

That points to sharp-tongued media director Madeline "Mandy" Hampton _ played by Moira Kelly, who is leaving the show. But it's not clear whether her character was at the event, and other reports have suggested the president or aide Lyman might be injured, allowing the show to flash back on how the president's team first came together.

All Sorkin would admit is that the shooting won't eliminate Hill's Charlie Young _ currently the show's only African-American cast member.

In other words, stay tuned.

Election time

To help keep the proceedings loose, The West Wing refers to current events without being bound by them. So, even though an episode will air just after the presidential election in November, in West Wing-land it will be midterm election time.

The show's unique reality also allows producers and stars to remain confident that, if George W. Bush takes the White House in November, their Democratic president can maintain his TV mandate.

In fact, co-executive producer Falls hopes to see future storylines better represent the Republican point of view.

Already, the show has added former Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan to its roster of consultants. And actor Emily Procter joins the cast this year as a Republican hired onto Bartlet's staff.

(Former Night Court star John Larroquette plays Procter's boss; Janel Moloney also becomes a full-time cast member as Lyman's wisecracking secretary, Donnatella Moss).

"We don't set out with a liberal agenda ... but we want to give a more balanced view (next season)," says Falls. "Aaron doesn't just want to (introduce) Republican issues where the Republicans lose in the end ... like the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters. And we've gotten our first liberal hate mail (over Noonan's and Fitzwater's hirings), so we must be going in the right direction."

But Sheen is blunter about the show's political viewpoint and its prospects should Bush win come November.

"We're liberal Democrats and supportive and we hope (Gore) wins," says the actor, who rubbed shoulders with real politicians when the Democratic National Convention came to Los Angeles in August. "And if he doesn't win, we're going to be a real pain in the a_ to Mr. Bush."

_ Material from Times files and the Associated Press was used in this report.