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FAKE CAMPAIGN, REAL NOSTALGIA

Tanner '88, a satirical miniseries about a make-believe presidential candidate on the real 1988 campaign trail, remains amazingly fresh after 16 years.

Seen now (courtesy of cable's Sundance Channel, where the 11 weekly episodes begin airing Tuesday at 9 p.m.), Tanner '88 seems dated in only a few ways. For one thing, the rare cell phone is the size of a shoebox. And everybody smokes _ everywhere.

But there's a more fundamental contrast with today: The loopy, bare-knuckles portrait of politics as dramatized by Tanner's creative duo, director Robert Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau _ neither of whom has ever been accused of pulling his punch _ seems downright genteel in today's ever-harsher political climate.

For this reason alone, Tanner '88 serves as a fascinating adjunct to the 2004 primaries it will echo, as well as put them into bitter perspective.

Not that Tanner '88 isn't entertaining in its own right.

"I think it's the most creative work I've ever done," says Altman, quite a sweeping assessment from the director of M+A+S+H, Nashville and The Player. He is chatting on the morning of the New Hampshire primary, recalling how "16 years ago today we were up there, doing that first episode."

Theirs was an innovative filmmaking concept. Produced for HBO, Tanner '88 took a "mockumentary" approach to "covering" its fictitious candidate, former Michigan congressman Jack Tanner, as he, his campaign team and press contingent traveled a bumpy road through the primaries en route to the Democratic National Convention.

Tanner (nailed by Michael Murphy, of such films as Nashville and Woody Allen's Manhattan) is out to seize the nomination from actual candidates Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt.

Along the way, he crosses paths with many of these "rivals," plus other real figures, including journalist Linda Ellerbee, country music legend Waylon Jennings, actor Rebecca De Mornay and Republican presidential hopefuls Bob Dole and Pat Robertson.

In an era that respected more than now the line dividing fantasy and truth, Tanner '88 was a mind-bending hybrid, not to mention astute in how it sized up the modern campaign grind.

Asked if he feels satisfied, even smug, by how Tanner '88 has stood the test of time, Altman answers, "I don't know how much satisfaction there is." Then he flashes a devilish smile. "But there's a lot of smugness."

Among the Tanner troupe, Pamela Reed is perfect as T.J. Cavanaugh, the chain-smoking campaign manager. Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) plays Tanner's devoted but high-strung 19-year-old daughter, who takes an often overactive campaign role, even getting herself and Dad arrested at a political demonstration.

In the first episode, Tanner is found running a New Hampshire gantlet familiar to any cable-news viewer the past couple of weeks: door-to-door solicitation for votes.

Accepting a cup of coffee at one house, Tanner is reminded by his crusty host that he isn't the first candidate to pay a call: "Practically everybody takes it black," the man huffs, "except Gephardt. He turned his coffee into a damn milkshake."

By Week 2, the action has shifted to Nashville, where Cavanaugh unveils a new campaign slogan: "Tanner For Real."

"What happened to "The Future Is Now'?" a reporter asks.

" "The Future Is Now' was then," she says, "and "For Real' is now."

Tanner seems to be a decent, principled chap who can't quite find his footing on the campaign trail _ or won't.

"I feel like I'm an innocent bystander in my own campaign," he muses.

To depict Tanner as somewhat passive (Altman deems him "a reluctant candidate") is a clever storytelling device: He is in the eye of the political hurricane, while the hurricanelike process swirling around him is what Tanner '88 is mostly interested in.

Though the actors stayed faithful to Trudeau's script and Altman's direction, "We were always looking for a way to hook reality into our fictional situations," Altman says. So they made it up as they went along.

One instance: The February morning after Babbitt dropped out, the former Arizona governor taped a scene strolling with Tanner near the Washington monument, where he voiced some off-the-cuff, heartfelt thoughts: "Whatcha wanna do in a campaign is say, "I ran, I made a difference. I'll risk losing. But I just might win.' "

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