SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Watching George W. Bush's post-debate strategy emerge was interesting. Watching it flower into perfection within days was fascinating.

To go back a mere week, Veep Al Gore won the debate on points, but the immediate spin was: Would it do him any good because he was having such an Eddie Haskell night? The Bush camp complained of Gore's sighing; the media promptly did out-takes of all sighs by Gore, strung them together and -- voila -- he appears as a petulant poseur rather than master of fact and issue.

(I mean, what are we to make of Bush's suggestion that we encourage energy exploration in Mexico so we won't be dependent on foreign oil? Bush actually said he had discussed this with Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox. Shouldn't someone cable Fox and tell him we're not considering annexation?)

OK, the media -- world champions of getting-off-the-point -- now have us worrying about Gore's sighing, but the Bush camp is down to no issues. Nothing works for them, and their only option is to drive up Gore's negatives.

Their chosen vehicle for this purpose is "the credibility issue." Now, this is interesting, because the problem is a media creation in the first place -- with a memorable contribution from Gore in the "no controlling legal authority" news conference.

As writer Lars-Erik Nelson recently pointed out, "Though he was born and educated in Washington, Gore as a child did indeed work cruelly hard on his father's Tennessee farm. He was in fact a model for one of the characters in Erich Segal's 'Love Story.' He really did have an important part in creating the Internet. He did hold the first congressional hearings into pollution at New York's Love Canal."

In fact, on that last item, the media-literacy class that Gore was addressing at the time of the misreported "I discovered Love Canal" allegation sent a letter of correction to The New York Times about what Gore actually said. Don't you hate it when high school kids show up the media?

Nevertheless, the media was high on the "Gore stretches the truth" business and played it up mercilessly. Gore, a pro, knew it was useless to argue the facts. Being the media means never having to say you're sorry.

The Republican Amen Corner in the media -- that gaggle of flacks, hacks, ex-Republican speech writers, flunkies and spear-carriers now passing themselves off as journalists -- took up the cry to a man and woman. Those Republicans-pretending-to-be-journalists are so obedient. They sing in such perfect harmony off the same page that the song rises to heaven and dominates all else. Plain reporters, forever obliged to try to be even-handed, are no competition.

Lest we all swoon in horror at the concept of a politician exaggerating (could it be?!), let us take a look at some of the more interesting claims made by the Bush camp.

I am particularly fond of the assertion that he was practically the Father of the Texas Patients Bill of Rights. Of course, he did veto it the first time and refuse to sign it the second, when it was passed by a veto-proof majority; but when you point that out, the Bush camp immediately whines that he signed MOST of the provisions in that second package -- all the unimportant ones -- and only refused to sign one.

That one, of course, is the only major bone of contention in any Patients Bill of Rights -- whether patents can sue their HMOs. Bush hates trial lawyers; Bush refused to sign; Bush's campaign now brags that he signed "the strongest Patients Bill of Rights in the country."

My personal favorite among the Bush whoppers is Education Is His Issue. The always-egregious Wall Street Journal editorial page recently rhapsodized over an endorsement of Bush by a state rep in Massachusetts. This citizen "hailed Dubya's track record on education as 'a model of what works in turning around troubled school systems.' [He] decried the lack of reporting on that record, complaining that `sometimes the most important stories, such as Gov. Bush's success with education reform, get lost in the static of a campaign.' "

I'll say, and I'd like to see the Journal come down to Texas and try to find that track record. Texas schools, as previously reported here, have soared from abysmal to almost up to average. Our minority students in particular have made terrific gains because we finally started putting some money into their schools.

Almost all of this was accomplished in 1984, which is now 16 years ago, and the bulk of the credit goes to Ross Perot, former Gov. Mark White and former Lite Guv Bill Hobby. Thanks are also owed to incredibly difficult work by a series of state legislatures on the almost-impossible issue of how to fund schools fairly. Credit also goes to Skip Meno, Ann Richards' education commissioner, for the school accountability system about which Bush so often brags.

Find me one single education reform for which Bush deserves the bulk, or even a substantial minority, of the credit (it's a weak governor system) and that can be shown to have turned around a troubled school system. Double dare ya.

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.