AUSTIN, Texas -- Oh, pooh, the fun's over. At least for a while (said she, always optimistic to the point of idiocy). But it was sure swell while it lasted.

Who can forget those glorious moments: George W. Bush railing against "terriers and bariffs," Al Gore wowing us with earth tones, Bill Bradley wowing us with ... um ... getting endorsed by Michael Jordan. Connoisseurs of political fun will have to look to the Reform Party for the nonce. However, we can hope that by fall we'll be ready for the clash of those titans Gore and Bush.

You must admit, at least this abbreviated primary season got folks stirred up, involved and out to vote. And that was fun. Everybody popping off with an opinion, lots of down-and-dirty campaigning, candidates being shocked and outraged all over the place.

Your cynics will conclude that all this proves is: (a) negative ads work, (b) you can't beat big money, and (c) there's not much democracy left in the U.S. of A. All of which is true. It was over before most of us had a chance to vote.

But the challengers deserve some blame, too. The estimable Bill Bradley, as previously noted, is minus-zero on the Elvis scale. When Adlai Stevenson was campaigning is the '50s, a woman came up to him and said, "Oh, Mr. Stevenson, you have the vote of every intelligent person in this country."

He replied gently, "Yes, madam, but I need a majority." Stevenson had a lot more Elvis than Bradley.

John McCain started out with a splendid populist theme -- get the big money out of politics -- but when Bush went negative on him, his became a campaign about a campaign, rather than about what the influence of big money in politics is doing to the people. Not to McCain -- to us.

The conventional wisdom, which took about two and a half seconds to solidify Tuesday night, went right back to proclaiming, "People don't care about campaign finance reform." Believe me, they do when you explain how much money it's costing them.

So now we get to watch Dubya Bush return to being "a uniter, not a divider," although one forebodes that Bush's clunker of a line explaining that theme to David Letterman will come back to haunt him. "That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening it up," he quipped to Letterman, who recently had heart surgery. "That's what that means." How side-splitting.

Another contender in the political humor department turns out to be our Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who will become governor if Bush wins the presidency. When Perry went to cast his early vote, he said, "Wherever your political philosophy might be, if you're not for George Bush being the next president of the United States, I consider that to be almost treasonous, if you're a Texan." Heh-heh.

Sorry to get wonky here, but front-loading the primaries is a terrible idea, just as we wonks predicted. More and more states have moved to early primaries, so even California -- which used to be in the catbird seat -- felt impelled to move up to Super Tuesday just because the races kept getting decided before they ever got to the Golden State.

This rush to front-load primaries shuts out more and more people from getting the kind of intensive, personal campaigning that lets people really get a look at the candidates -- and lets the candidates hear from the country. Once they get past New Hampshire, it now looks like a general election -- all negative ads, spin and money, money, money.

There's something else to recommend a more leisurely, strung-out process: This is hell on the candidates. It is just grueling. Bush was sick by the time it was over, and McCain was probably making mistakes from exhaustion.

Optimism is my congenital defect, so let me propose the pleasant theory that it may now be possible to get Bush and Gore to address some subjects of interest to us, rather than the "blah, blah, blah, I'm in the middle" they would prefer to talk about.

Corporate crime, for example. We've got the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble when it comes to crime in this country. The FBI says burglary and robbery cost U.S. taxpayers $3.8 billion annually. Securities fraud alone costs four times that.

And securities fraud is nothing to the cost of oil spills, price-fixing and dangerous or defective products. Fraud by health-care corporations alone costs us between $100 billion and $400 billion a year. No three-strikes-and-you're-out for these guys. Remember the S&L scandal? $500 billion.

Jim Hightower has a great idea in his newsletter: "We ought to require corporations to advertise their crimes as a form of punishment (imagine the 'ADM -- Super Swindler of the World' TV spot.)"

You may say a price-fixing scheme (Nine West just paid a $34 million fine to settle price-fixing charges) at least doesn't kill people, like the robber at the Jiffy Mart. Wrong. Look again. You can get more information at the Web site of Multinational Monitor at

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.