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Bush vs. Kerry: Watch the Last Lap

By Ciro Scotti Camp Kerry likes to say that although their man may be slow off the blocks, he's a great closer. The implicit fable: The torpid tortoise from Massachusetts (with the incredible hair) will best the jog-aholic hare from Texas.

It's true that come-from-behind John Kerry can sneak up on you like a Tom Collins on a hot summer afternoon. In the 1996 defense of his Senate seat, he surprised the khakis off the popular patrician Governor William Weld, sending a man once thought of as Presidential timber on a slow float down a political river to nowhere.

Just last winter, as everyone from your faithful columnist to far brighter lights were writing Kerry off as a stiff who ought to fold in the face of the Dean Machine, JFK II came roaring out of Iowa and then proved pundits wrong again in New Hampshire.

LAST-SECOND HEROICS. But the awful truth for the Anyone-But-Bush-ers is that the President is no slouch in the final mile either. In 1994, George Bush II, ridiculed as "shrub" by Lone Star State columnist Molly Ivins, blew the shellac out of Anne Richards' hair (hair, again) as he whizzed past the sassy incumbent on his way to the Texas governorship.

And you want to talk "closer"? How about Florida 2000, where Bush moved heaven, earth, and a few Supreme Court justices to snatch victory from the jaws of Al Gore? That's a man who throws a haymaker with five seconds to go in Round 12. That's a man who swishes a winning three-pointer at the buzzer. That's a man whom you count out at your peril.

Which brings us to the heart of Dick Cheney's and Bush's possible October surprise. If after the Republican National Convention in early September, Kerry and the hotshot he must choose as a running mate (Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, or whomever) seem more than threatening, look for the old F-wording Cheneyiac to suddenly stop being so roboustly ready to rumble and drop out.

A FIGHT FOR VETS. In his place would come someone unexpected but electrifying to roil the race. Senator John McCain, who appears to be making peace with Bush (on June 18 at Fort Lewis in Washington State and then later in Arizona they hugged and mugged), and Secretary of State Colin Powell are two names that set the media aflutter. Both would be daunting choices.

Getting McCain on board would be particularly sweet after his dalliance with a unity ticket headed by his Senate pal Kerry. McCain's military credentials from Vietnam would make it a fight for those veterans attracted to Kerry -- a war hero, too, but with a far less compelling story. McCain appeals to independents, as he demonstrated so well in New Hampshire in 2000. And as a (now softening) critic of the aftermath in Iraq, his presence would send a message that Bush is taking seriously the misgivings so many Americans have about the U.S. presence there.

For McCain, the second spot with Bush offers something that being Kerry's potential Veep could not: A shot at the top of the ticket in 2008 and the chance of being the oldest President since Ronald Reagan.

PICK A BUDDING STAR? For Powell, who stood his ground (his pre-war performance at the U.N. aside) in the face of neocon slings and arrows over Iraq, how enticing it would be to rescue Bush, soldier through four more years, and emerge as the first African-American President.

Or if McCain and Powell come with too much baggage -- and both apparently would have family issues to confront -- a budding star like Mitt Romney of Massachusetts can give the ticket sex appeal, in a Donny Osmond sort of way. Choosing the telegenic governor of Kerry's home state wouldn't only be a delicious dig but would set the GOP up with another potential successor-to-be-reckoned-with.

Certainly, dumping the Cheneyiac would be a desperate measure. But for those two hypercompetitive Skull & Bones boys, Bush and Kerry, you do what you have to do when the title of Closer-in-Chief is up for grabs. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

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