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Vice President Al Gore (L) and Texas governor George W. Bush

What happens to a dead-heat presidential race when politics goes below the fold in October?

"Tell him that he just became president of the United States." Bush communications director Karen Hughes was overheard relaying that message to her candidate an hour after the debate ended. But before Bush's lead in the snap polls even had a chance to mature (or disappear, as Gore's did after the first debate), the Middle East blew up, and the stock market with it. Six days of debate-related punditry and spin cycling has been abruptly cut short. In the Friday headlines — big, grave, banner headlines with the seriousness of death in them — there was nary a Bush or Gore to be found.

The presidential race, some say, is on hold.

Which was fine with Al Gore, who loudly cut short a day in swing-state land (Milwaukee, specifically) to go back to Washington and take his incumbent's place at the adult table. "He's vice president, he's part of the national security team, and a situation like this requires that the full team be in place," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. "This is not about politics," he added. "This is about peace in the Middle East." And an administration scrambling to have some stability to point to in November.

And it doesn't leave much to talk about on the campaign trail. Jim Lehrer was prescient enough to devote a full 45 minutes of the debate to foreign policy, and the challenger thrilled supporters by sounding acceptably presidential on the subject. But after Bush made so much of America "speaking with one voice" during any ongoing foreign crisis, what's a little ol' Texas governor to do in the meantime? Mark time on Medicare in swing-state land (Pennsylvania, specifically) and hope voters make it deep enough into their newspapers to read about it.

Bush may be the one with time on his side. As the markets — and middle-class portfolios — continue to sag, as the fruits of eight years of Clintonian Mideast peacemaking continue to taste bitter, as oil continues its dramatic reappearance on the nation's political and economic stage, Bush's increasingly articulate calls for a manlier U.S. policy — "humble" abroad and self-sufficient at home — may fall favorably on some undecided ears. And having Gulf War vet Dick Cheney around doesn't hurt.

With a comparative dearth of heavy-breathing press coverage in between the candidates, Round Two of the presidential debates may well get lumped in with Tuesday's Round Three in the collective voter consciousness. Gore will hope he has encouraging news to relay from the White House, and will stay out of kindergarten-teacher mode when he's answering the questions of ordinary citizens in St. Louis. Bush, having cemented his position as at least a viable candidate, will have to keep up his momentum on foreign policy, and find some statesmanlike way to pin the current turmoil on the last seven and a half years. And then it's precisely three weeks until Election Day.

In a race as close as this, the last sliver of undecideds may well choose their lever by taking one last look around their world. For all the fretting about sighing, sniffing, stumbling and exaggeration, if the world and Wall Street's current state of tenuousness are still riding the front pages in November, this would well be a classic status quo election — about whether or not America could indeed benefit from a change of leadership. And whether in a time of relative chaos, voters feel comfortable turning over the reins to George W. Bush.