BOSTON -- The news media missed the third debate because they were so focused on Al Gore. Gore was again aggressive, Gore was arguably over the line a couple of times -- anyone see any sign of a new stretcher? They missed George W. Bush's performance.

A lady named Lisa Kee stood up and asked, "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?"

So Gore told how his proposal would affect her, and then it was Bush's turn. He said Gore's plan would cost a whole lot of money -- "a lot more than we have."

He then explained: "I think also what you need to think about is not the immediate, but what about Medicare? You get a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options. Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is important, but it doesn't keep up with the new medicines. If you're a Medicare person, on Medicare, you don't get the new procedures. You're stuck in a time warp in many ways.

"So it will be a modern Medicare system that trusts you to make a variety of options for you. You're going to live in a peaceful world. It will be a world of peace because we're going to have a clear sight of foreign policy based upon a strong military and a mission that stands by our friends. A mission that doesn't try to be all things to all people. A judicious use of the military which will help keep the peace.

"You'll live in a world, hopefully, that is more educated so it's less likely you'll be harmed in your neighborhood. See, an educated child is one much more likely to be hopeful and optimistic. You'll be in a world in which fits into my philosophy. The harder you work, the more you can keep.

"It's the American way. Government shouldn't be a heavy hand. It's what the federal government does to you. It should be a helping hand, and tax relief and the proposals I just described should be a good helping hand. "

Kee sat back down. She will be eligible for Medicare in 31 years.

Bush's proposals are actually so big that they're simple. Just forget how many zeros a trillion is and do this math: He wants to give back $1.3 billion in tax cuts, the great bulk of which will go to the richest people in the country. Then he will take $1 trillion out of Social Security -- but he says he will not cut benefits, so he promises to put another $2.3 trillion into Social Security and Medicare, and he also wants to spend money on education, the military, health care and prescription drugs.

Really, once we get to trillions, it's quite simple. We don't have the money.

Bush wandered between pathetic and ridiculous, while the media focused on the fact that when Gore got a question from a teacher, he asked the guy, "What grade do you teach?"

"Gore repeatedly violated the rules!" claimed indignant spinmeisters for the next two days. "He was rude; he was arrogant."

In the absurd hothouse environment of Washington, where they all seem to have lost their grip years ago, I was actually asked by one interviewer, "Which of the three Al Gores do you think showed up last night?"

Gore changed his debate strategy in the second debate because everyone said he came on too strong in the first one. In the third debate, he went back to being himself -- knowing so much about everything that he's boring. It beat Bush's not knowing enough to be able to talk for two minutes on major issues.

But the blackbird journalists of Washington had got themselves into a perfect tizzy of pop psychology -- Gore doesn't know he who is, who is the real Gore, Gore is unauthentic, he's trying to be an alpha male, not an omega male. Actually, it's pretty clear to everyone outside the Washington press corps that Gore is a politician trying to win a presidential campaign.

Remember the great flap and carry-on when Gore told of a Florida schoolgirl's lack of a desk, but the next day her principal said it was no such thing? This was rich new evidence of Gore's "Pinocchio problem."

Last week, CNN's Brooks Jackson reported that the principal has misrepresented the situation to reporters and that students had gone for weeks without desks in classes of 36 to a teacher.

The issue in this campaign is not Gore's truthfulness. He read in a newspaper article that Erich Segal, author of "Love Story," had said that Gore, Tipper and Tommie Lee Jones were all models for characters in the book. Segal later said he had been misquoted about Tipper being a model. How does that make Gore a liar?

He never claimed that he invented the Internet or that he discovered Love Canal, and he did have to work cruelly hard on his father's farm in Tennessee. OK?

Now can we discuss Bush's plan to free us from dependence on foreign oil by more energy exploitation in Mexico? Now can we discuss Bush's tax plan? He has repeatedly claimed that the bulk of his proposed tax cuts would go to "the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder," and it's simply untrue.

The danger of Bush's tax cut, in addition to its timing, is that it will exacerbate this growing disparity between the rich and the rest of the country. It's not just tax cuts for the rich, but the fact that Bush doesn't believe in increasing the minimum wage -- which is set at $3.55 a hour in Texas, covering mostly farm workers who don't come under the federal minimum.

The average housing wage in this country -- what you have to earn to afford a relatively decent two-bedroom apartment for a family of four -- is $11 an hour. Bush's plan would make one of the most troubling trends in this society considerably worse.

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.