SAN FRANCISCO -- He was the rarest of all rare breeds -- a mensch from Minnesota. But this is not a column about Paul Wellstone. No one has to wonder for a minute what he would have wanted, "What would Wellstone do?" The answer all but roars back, "Don't mourn, organize!"

The contrast between Paul's passionate populism and this dreary mid-term election is as sad as his death. There's many a contest between political pygmies this year -- we're down to seeds and stems again --- but even in proud Texas we have to admit that this year's palm for nose-holding voting must go to California. Not to overstate, two of the most titanically unattractive candidates in the history of time -- Gray Davis and Bill Simon -- are vying for the governorship. A new nadir in modern politics. How we got from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to this -- or what we ever did to deserve it -- is unclear. The debate between Davis and Simon raised the always-timely question: Is God punishing us?

Naturally, when it comes to voting, we in Texas are accustomed to discerning that fine hair's breadth worth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other. But it does raise the question: Why bother?

One sorry excuse for a decent, fighting people's pol or the other; what difference does it make?

Oh, just that your life is at stake.

What stuns me most about contemporary politics is not even that the system has been so badly corrupted by money. It is that so few people get the connection between their lives and what the bozos do in Washington and our state capitols. "I'm just not interested in politics." "They're all crooks." "Nothing I can do about it, I'm just one person. I can't buy influence."

Politics is not a picture on a wall or a television sitcom you can decide you don't much care for. Is the person who prescribes your eyeglasses qualified to do so? How deep will you be buried when you die? What textbooks are your children learning from at school? What will happen if you become seriously ill? Is the meat you're eating tainted? Will you be able to afford to go to college or to send your kids? Would you like a vacation? Expect to retire before you die? Can you find a job? Drive a car? Afford insurance? Is your credit card company or your banker or your broker ripping you off? It's all politics, Bubba. You don't get to opt out for lack of interest.

In this putrid election season, every television ad seems to announce that the other guy sucks eggs, runs on all fours, molests small children and has the brain of an adolescent pissant. It's tempting to join the "pox on both their houses" crowd. They're close to right, but they're still wrong.

Here's the good news: All of this can actually be fixed. By me, you, us -- no kidding, no bull. Nothing you can do about it? Just one person? As an American at this time, you have more political power than 99 percent of all the people who have ever lived on earth. And should you round up four friends who don't usually vote, you'll have four times that much political power. Why throw that away?

And you have other kinds of power as well. Hundreds of thousands of Americans demonstrated against war in Iraq Saturday. I don't know why the mainstream media are so allergic to reporting this, but the turnout was stunning. In San Francisco, middle-aged protesters with gray ponytails mixed with punk kids with orange hair and earrings in their eyebrows and with suburban families toting toddlers. The old coots griped about their feet and about having to listen to speeches through a bad sound system again (digital sound has not yet made it to the peace movement). But the kids were, like, totally awed. They had not, in their young lives, ever seen anything like tens of thousands of Americans peacefully exercising their right to assemble and to petition their government for redress of grievances. The creativity and humor of the signs was fabulous, though often impolite. A grand exercise in citizenship.

And will it make any difference? Does the Bush administration care that 40 percent of Americans are opposed to this war and that almost all of us have doubts about it? Politicians are much more sensitive creatures than is generally assumed. In political science circles, the technical term we use for this is "goosey." Pols not only listen to public opinion, they usually overreact to it.

The Bush administration has announced this grand imperial plan, the "National Security Strategy of the United States," under which America is to dominate the world forever, and we'll attack any country that doesn't agree with us. Frankly, it's nutty. But they made a big mistake. They forgot to run it by the people first.

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 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.