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Bush makes his multi-gaffe debut on foreign affairs Voters see funny side of race for the White House on four decks across three columns

IF THE two front-running candidates for the United States presidency stall before the first primaries, they may trace their difficulties back to this week: the week America laughed at them.

In publications ranging from tabloids to The Wall Street Journal, Vice- President Al Gore and George W Bush, governor of Texas have found themselves ridiculed: the one for his insecurities, the other for his ignorance.

Mr Gore's embarrassment started on Monday with Time magazine's revelation that he had been paying Naomi Wolf, a feminist author (latest book, written in what she calls the "first person sexual": Promiscuities) $15,000 (pounds 9,400) a month to transform the Vice-President into presidential material. In more graphic, anthropological terms, her task was said to be to make Mr Gore, a quintessentially beta-male, into a lord-of-the-jungle alpha-male.

It was she, word spread, who was responsible for the change from Washington- friendly blue suits to more country-style brown and beige.And it was she who was responsible for his new attacking style - the hyperactivity that entails grabbing the microphone, prowling the hall, "dissing" all challengers and changing the questions that has been on show in halls across the country in recent weeks.

Mr Bush Jnr, meanwhile, whose C-grade average at Yale and limited experience of the world beyond Texas have started to raise concern about his suitability for the highest office, somehow found himself a deux in a radio studio with one of the few attack-dogs of US local television, Andy Hiller of Boston's WHDH. Mr Hiller, keen to break with the Hello!-style interviews candidates have come to expect, lobbed him a few specifics on the subject the candidate is due to speak on next week: foreign policy.

He started with a selection of troublespots, in the event, presumably, that the aspiring president might find himself calling the local leaders in a hurry. "Can you name the president of Chechnya?" he asked. "No," said Mr Bush Jnr gamely, parrying "Can you?" Mr Hiller, undeterred, went on through the president of Taiwan - "Yeah, Lee," came the languid reply - the general in charge of Pakistan and the prime minister of India.

The score was one out of four, plus a potentially costly error: "The new Pakistani general?" Mr Bush Jnr mused, apparently racking his brain for the name, "he's just been elected - not elected; this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the sub-continent."

George W Bush had not, apparently, sought State Department advice before braving Mr Hiller's den. In a last half-hearted attempt to salvage some political dignity, he countered: "Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico?" "No, Sir,' replied Mr Hiller, "but I would say to that I'm not running for president."

Mr Gore's team rapidly issued a statement saying their man would have got all four names. That is what experience does for you, they implied. But would your genuine alpha-male have bothered to score points on so apparently trivial a matter? Is familiarity with such details necessary to being an alpha-male? The preponderance of pundits thought not.

Mr Clinton, whose alpha-male qualification has been taken as read all week, gallantly - and rather surprisingly - raced to Mr Bush Jnr's rescue, telling an interviewer yesterday: "If Mr Bush were president, he would soon enough learn their names... but the most important thing is, do you have a clear idea of what the world should look like and what America's policies ought to be in those areas?"

A former Clinton adviser, Paul Begala, though, had no doubt Mr Clinton would have known the equivalent names when he was running for office. "Not just their names," he quipped, "but how many kids they had and whether they had a pet."

Finally, yesterday, Ms Wolf broke her silence to "clarify" her role in the Gore campaign. The alpha-male aspect, she told The New York Times, was "pure imagination". She denied she had recommended how Mr Gore should dress - not even so much as a "Nice tie, Mr Vice-President".

Which is probably all for the best. Thanks to Monica Lewinsky, everyone knows where such comments may lead when a genuine alpha-male is on the loose in the White House.