AUSTIN, Texas -- Like all the other political junkies, I am just loving this -- wow, a white-hot primary; pollsters confounded; pundits wrong; he's up, no, he's down; the people calling the shots; experts looking like fools. What fun.

One must admit, anent our boy George Dubya, that if you can't even get a two-day bounce -- from Saturday in South Carolina to Tuesday in Michigan -- after spending $30 million, you could be in trouble.

What a slugfest that was in South Carolina -- the best East Texas campaign I've seen in years. Open thuggery! John McCain accused Bush of being like Bill Clinton (horror of horrors), while Bush's supporters were accusing McCain of being gay, a womanizer, having a Jewish campaign chairman, a black daughter and a drug-addict wife. Boy, that was some goin' there. The Bushies must be proud of that one.

The great mystery at this point is why so many Republicans are still voting for Bush on the theory that he's their strongest candidate. One can see why the big-money Republicans are still for him -- McCain actually threatens to do something about big money in politics. But what about the rest of the R's?

The D's have had this figured out for weeks. McCain is their worst nightmare -- there goes every independent vote in the country. Unless the R's decide to vote for Al Gore, McCain is your heavy favorite.

Bush is so certain that McCain is the stronger candidate, he's busy turning himself into McCain. The last three weeks have been the ultimate morph ad, as Dubya started adopting all McCain's themes and tactics. "The real reformer," "a reformer with results" and (most priceless of all) "in favor of campaign finance reform."

What a wheeze. Bush is the most status quo, establishment candidate imaginable. But South Carolina certainly proves that some people will believe anything.

As much joy as all this brings to the hearts of connoisseurs of political skullduggery, there's a problem for the rest of the citizenry. The Democratic and the Republican primaries have each become a campaign about a campaign.

"My opponent is running vicious attack ads attacking me for attacking him ..." The brethren and sistren of the media are aiding and abetting this development -- how we love polls, the horse race, the strategy, the machinations of consultants and the inside story. The media have been fixated on the inside story ever since Theodore White wrote The Making of the President in 1961.

The outside story, the one that affects people's lives, is the one we're missing. Face it -- if McCain came out with a 400-page health-care proposal tomorrow, it would be a one-day story and then back to, "My opponent is viciously twisting my record on ..."

The trouble with this presidential campaign is what is notBlack Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Atlantic Monthly Press) by Mark Bowden is the most gripping true story I've read in years. It's a minute-by-minute account of the 1993 disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia, when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, 18 Americans killed, dozens more horribly injured and hundreds of Somalis left dead. And all that on a humanitarian mission to help the people of Somalia.

The story is chilling, fascinating, heroic, at times bizarrely comic, but most of all terribly sad. Not since Vietnam have we sleepwalked into a place with the best of intentions and made such a bloody mess. (This was before Kosovo.)

I should also add that this is a "guy book," full of technical detail worthy of a Tom Clancy thriller. But it is mainly a superb piece of journalism -- Bowden took every surviving American who was there through every agonizing hour of it. And he tells the story of how it looked from the Somali point of view.

In all that sad, tangled history of good intentions gone awry, of our utter failure to understand the culture and the politics of the place, are some deep, gonging warning bells about the American military. As Bowden keeps reminding us, "the greatest military power on earth" was simply overwhelmed by huge mobs of furious Third World people armed with nothing more than rifles and old Soviet rocket-propelled grenades. Wave after wave after wave of them. And all our vaunted high-tech, super-duper, zillion-dollar weapons couldn't stand up to the RPGs.

Now the question arises: Do we keep doing the same thing we already know doesn't work? Do we keep letting the defense industry convince us to pay for ever-higher-tech weapons (on which they make huge profits) that are of no use in Third World situations where we are trying to keep peace or deliver help?

We have no enemies with remotely equivalent high-tech weaponry to fight. All we have is pitiable places like Congo, now in hideous strife, with cries for help mounting. It took The New York Times three full pages, with maps, charts and graphs, just to explain who all was fighting there and why. Congo and all the other troubled trouble spots make this matter ever more urgent.

Even more urgent than who said what about whose record in the last primary.

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.