AUSTIN, Texas -- We are a nation divided, cleft, twain for the duration. For those of us in states like Texas, where George W. Bush will sweep, or California, where Al Gore is up by 13, this presidential election is being phoned in. You have to go to the swing states to find out what the race actually feels like. It's a whole other level of intensity.

If you're in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois or Missouri, the presidential race is high-tension and inescapable. The continuous blat from the air wars -- the television and radio advertising campaigns -- is everywhere. More money is being spent on this presidential election than ever before, but it's being spent in fewer than a dozen states, so the concentrated effect is practically stunning.

Because most of the swing states are in the Rust Belt of the Midwest -- only Florida, Oregon and Washington are in play outside the Midwest -- this peculiar fallout of electoral votes is also affecting the content of the campaign. Marc Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle notes that Midwesterners, as a bunch, are more socially conservative than Right or Left Coasters, so Gore has taken the environment, abortion and gun control off the table.

What seems to me curious about the bloody Midwestern battleground is that neither candidate will touch economic globalization. The Midwest has been more adversely affected by globalization than most regions -- a lot of its jobs are in Mexico and Taiwan today. Of course, both candidates are dedicated free-traders, but even so, you'd think one of them would have the brains to say "free trade with conditions," instead of "free trade forever."

This is an impression, not a poll, but it seems to me that the swing staters now like the candidates even less than voters elsewhere. That's what ad campaigns do -- you start with two relatively decent candidates, neither one of them stupid or mean, and by Election Day, no one can stand either one of them.

It's a good year to be dispassionate about the candidates because neither of them, if elected, is likely to end up on Mount Rushmore. It's actually quite rare to meet people who have persuaded themselves that either one of these citizens is the soul of honor, an intellectual beacon and a light unto the nations -- although Texans are loyally doing better than most.

To the extent that this dispassion keeps throwing the light back on the issues, it seems rather a good thing. It's just that the amount being spent on getting people to dislike these guys is depressing.

On L'Affaire McKinnongate, as we now call the flap over who pinched Bush's debate material and sent it to a Gore campaign honcho, the media seem to be operating in a curious historical vacuum. The Texas press has managed to recall that we have seen similar events before, but the national media remain clueless.

In 1984, Karl Rove -- the campaign manager now known as "Bush's brain" -- was working for Bill Clements in the gubernatorial election against Mark White. A listening device (a.k.a. "bug") was allegedly found in Rove's office by a private security firm a few days before the televised debate between White and Clements.

The case made headlines around the state. The FBI was called into investigate -- more headlines. The implication was clear: dirty work at the crossroads by the White campaign. White lost. The culprit was never found.

Rove later claimed that he never blamed the bug on White -- what he said was that he did not know who had planted it, but did know who would benefit from it.

Again in 1990, when Rove was working for Rick Perry (who was then running against Democratic Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower), Rove leaked news of another FBI investigation -- this time against Hightower for alleged misuse of funds.

Hightower was never charged with anything, although three of his aides were later convicted. Texas Democrats became quite paranoid about the pattern of the FBI being called in to investigate Democrats just before an election -- it also happened to Garry Mauro and Bob Bullock.

Rove was questioned about the pattern during his Senate confirmation hearing to a board of regents position, and as I reported in a column on Aug. 8, there are discrepancies between his answers to the Texas Senate and his answer on a U.S. Senate questionnaire later obtained by subpoena. McKinnongate has a familiar feel.

The national media remind one of the Bob Dylan song: "Something is happening out there, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"

Ralph Nader continues to draw these extraordinary crowds that actually pay to see him, while neither major party candidate can give it away for free. The media claim that they pay no attention to Nader because he's not moving in the polls. The polls, as we all know, are surveys of "likely voters." Try the number of unlikely voters in the Nader crowds -- previously unregistered, previously didn't vote, previously barfed at the mere thought. Something is happening out there.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.