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Caught in a subliminal rat flap

It's the year of the rat.

On CBS's Survivor, rats were a leitmotif. The contestants ate grilled rat while competing to see who was the biggest rat.

In our political reality drama, rats have also scurried center stage. The presidential race, which seems doomed to stay on a tatty, ratty low road, has fallen into another kerfuffle over a sneaky epithet.

Gore campaign aides went nuts when they figured out that a Republican ad lacing into the vice president on prescription drugs had one frame that flashed the word "RATS" in big white letters, as a Cubist fragment of the word "bureaucrats."

W. dismissed the charges, saying "conspiracy theories abound. . . ." Just as his father used to parrot the tactical talk of his handlers, W. spouted insider jargon. "This ad is coming out of rotation" anyway, he said.

He denied over and over that there was any subliminal intent. Well, actually, he denied over and over that there was any "subliminable" intent.

The reporters pounced on that superfluous syllable, taking off after the Republican for not being able to pronounce the crime he was accused of. Soon we had an abominable subliminable flapdoodle.

The hullabaloo, I think, is preposterous. One RATS, and Bush is a SNAKE?

Experts tell me that animation and graphics are done by computer, frame by frame. So if the word RATS appeared on the screen, even for a 30th of a second, it could only happen if somebody told a computer he wanted the word RATS to appear in a frame.

Poppycock. When it comes to Republicans, reporters are just too finicky.

Whiny and babyish Gore aides are blowing it out of proportion.

All those bigfeet at Time and other publications who keep saying that W. is too jejune to run for president have goofed!

The notion that W. is so addled by Al Gore that he has resorted to being cryptographic in going after his critics is utterly without merit. It was surely unintentional.

A gopher couldn't dig a bigger hole than Al Gore does when he makes these ad hominem attacks with his supercilious sound bites about how he's "never seen anything like" the RATS. Autumn should be big picture time.

Why is everyone piling on poor Gov. Bush, never thanking him for bringing a new tone to politics, always treating him as a frat boy?

To suggest that maniacal desperation drove those fine Bush professionals in Austin to hastily approve a brainwashing ad is a canard out of control _ begone, pundits!

This was just more evidence that the Gore camp is packed with renowned slippery strategists who will get their comeuppance in November.

Before Gore officials continue this misguided course of railing against the Republicans, they should remember that most TV viewers are not replaying the ad in slow motion, frame by frame, in some Paul McCartney-is-dead moment. So why go ballistic at that one little wayward syllable?

The truth is, it's Bush league that the Gore team turns to demeaning its rival when it falls back on snitching and peddling gaffes to reporters.

Remember that Al Gore may be leading now, but he is still struggling to claim any votes in the South from the mountains of North Carolina to the beaches of Miami-Dade County.

What about the real issues Americans care about, like your drug prices and your pressing questions about school staffing? The Gore cabal should stop berating the Bushies because, boy, do they look silly.

Wouldn't it be better to discuss the merits of the Bush plan to secure lower-cost drugs for our aging parents?

Should a man like George W. Bush suffer such indignity at the hands of dishonorable Democrats and biased, liberal journalists? Hardly. Hands off, you vultures.

It's simply a Gore calumny. The Democrats should learn to stop whining and tattling and play by the rules.

W., don't pay any heed to the media sharks circling, to the frenzy of bluefish. As your dad always liked to say before he cast his line, "Those bluefish are dead meat." I believe there was no subliminal or subliminable message in your ad.

Remember, it's only the middle of September. It's not too late to recover your lead. Chin up, Mr. Bush, your critics are just stupid!

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service