The choice for president this year is not a happy one.

Both Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat, and Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican, are flawed candidates who have run miserably predictable campaigns that have distorted complex issues and will have failed to provide either with a true mandate to govern.

Given the nation's unprecedented prosperity and dominant position in a largely peaceful world, it's hard to understand why Gore hasn't run away with this election. He is not only more experienced than his opponent, but has a record as a moderate Democrat who has been willing to take tough votes and face up to difficult problems. However, his campaign persona is so stiff and pedantic and his approach to politics so transparently calculating that victory is very much in doubt.

His is a uniquely personal failing. People just don't seem to like Gore very much. His campaign has been on a downward trajectory since the first campaign debate. The amazing phenomenon is that even while voters said they believed Gore "won" the debate, he continued to slide in the opinion polls. The more voters see of him, the less certain they are that he should be president.  It's not just a question of personality, it's a question of leadership.

A Reaganesque Republican

Bush, in contrast, comes across as a nice enough guy. If you had to choose somebody to sit next to on a long airplane trip, he would no doubt be the one.  He is a much more gifted electoral politician than his father, the former president who once demonstrated his love of campaigning by looking at his watch in the middle of a presidential debate. Dubya, as he is called, seems to have a Reaganesque ability to float above complex issues-but without the core convictions that were at the center of Reagan's appeal.

Gore is a policy wonk. He has studied the issues for decades and is more than prepared to offer his own personal printout of the data in his brain. Just ask him a question. But being a policy wonk doesn't mean you have good judgment. If Gore is so much smarter than Bush, why is Bush running a more effective, better-organized campaign?

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At the same time, Bush's lack of preparation for the job is troubling and his lack of intellectual curiosity is stunning. He is not dumb, as some have suggested. But there is a shallowness to Bush, an anti-intellectual bent. There's a sense that he'll have top-flight advisers so people shouldn't worry that he lacks experience and hasn't really studied the problems. But the problems that get to a president's desk are the ones on which advisers don't agree. A president needs a context, a background on which to make judgments. Bush seems lacking in that background.

But one of these two men is going to be the next president. The basis for judgment must be who will make the most effective president, not who has run the better campaign or who would make the better next-door neighbor. Given the pandering nature of their campaigns, it's not enough to look just at what they have promised because they have both promised more than they can responsibly deliver. Voters must judge whether it's Gore or Bush who is more likely to do the responsible thing when the hot air of campaign promises meets the cold reality of governing.

On this basis the answer is clear: Al Gore will make the better president.  If that statement is made without enthusiasm it's also made with conviction. Both on the issues and on past performance, Gore is the choice.

A Clintonesque New Democrat

Overall, Gore has presented a moderate, centrist blueprint for governance that places a high premium on maintaining the government's newfound fiscal integrity. It is the sense of this editorial page that he will continue to govern in the New Democrat mold of President Bill Clinton. Indeed, it has been Gore who has pushed Clinton in that direction over the last eight years against the advice of others, one of whom seems to have been the first lady.

For all of Bush's talk about being a compassionate conservative, his programs are unabashedly right wing, whether they be across-the-board tax cuts, medical savings accounts or his avowed intent to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. He'd be a soulmate for the Republican congressional leaders, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississipi.

Social Security is an issue on which both candidates take positions that frustrate. Neither has been willing to confront the essential problem head-on: that there won't be enough workers to support the large baby-boom generation unless significant changes are made to the system, including cutting benefit levels, raising the age of eligibility or raising payroll taxes. Gore suggests the whole problem can be solved through paying down the debt. It cannot, although paying down the debt will help.

Bush's Fuzzy Math

Bush's solution is to partially privatize the system to allow individual investments. But he does not say how he can take $ 1 trillion to invest out of Social Security's revenues without either accelerating its bankruptcy date, or take it from expected general revenue surpluses without shortchanging his across-the-board tax cut. His numbers don't add up. It isn't fuzzy math, as Bush says of Gore's numbers; it's simple arithmetic.

What is so disappointing in both men is that they have not leveled with the electorate about the difficultly or complexity of the problem. Neither will have a mandate to deal with Social Security once elected. That represents a huge missed opportunity. But Bush's numbers are wildly off. Even worse, it's not clear that he even understands the impossibility of his proposal. Gore undoubtedly understands that he isn't solving the entire problem by paying down the debt. But he has not taken an unequivocal stance against doing what will be necessary to shore up the system eventually. It's Newsday's sense-and this is only a judgment call- that Gore's approach will be more sober and realistic.  He is the one more likely to deal with it successfully.

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Gore's track record in governing bolsters our contention. Possibly the most important choice made in the Clinton presidency was the 1993 decision to forgo the campaign promise of a middle-class income-tax cut and instead raise taxes to close the budget deficit. This critical choice put the country on the right economic course. According to published accounts, it was Gore who persuaded the wavering Clinton to "Get with the program."

Later Gore provided the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to make it law. This is an example of the governing Gore of whom people speak so highly as compared to the campaigning Gore who seems so artificial.

If there is one area of concern about how Gore would govern it is in foreign affairs. His policy of forward engagement-of becoming more aggressively involved in overseas situations that don't clearly affect the national interest-could lead to dangerous commitments. Gore has a Wilsonian streak-a moral base to how he thinks the United States should be involved in the world.  Bush places more emphasis on realpolitik-just defending the nation's vital interests. And Gore's vice presidential choice, Sen. Joseph Lieberman(D-Conn.) , is even more committed to using American force to attain moral ends. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense, is far more hard-headed than Lieberman.

But when asked where they really differed on specific U.S. commitments overseas, Bush only cited Haiti as an example of a situation in which he would not have involved U.S. military forces. There is no doubt a difference in approach here, but it's one of emphasis. And, if anything, Gore has demonstrated that he is a cautious man who will not carelessly make commitments.

Look Beyond the Rhetoric

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Again, it is important to go beyond campaign rhetoric and try to discern how each would govern. Bush's lack of experience has to be balanced against Gore's sober approach to foreign policy, including his support-proper in our judgment-of the war against Iraq.

George W. Bush would probably not be a disaster as president. He could even be OK. But don't we expect more than that of our national leaders? Al Gore, even with his less engaging personality, has the potential to be a very good president. With that in mind, Newsday endorses Al Gore for president.