Here’s a sentiment you don’t hear often in this age of clean elections and accountability for candidates: I miss all the political pandering.

With the spate of early presidential primaries, and North Carolina’s May 2, the Old North State is missing out and other states have gained leverage. The contentious Republican primary in South Carolina elevated that state’s political stock, gave Bush a victory and controversy (who is Bob Jones, anyway?), and pushed John McCain closer to “suspending” his campaign. Washington state, with its paltry 11 electoral votes, got a round of visits from Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

But the heirs-apparent to the Democratic and Republican thrones haven’t deigned to visit North Carolina, with the exception of a few random, traffic-halting fundraisers. Since they’re not around, they’re not talking about federal Hurricane Floyd relief, the tobacco settlement or any of the issues that uniquely impact Tar Heels.

So we’re stuck with two candidates whom we didn’t choose, and who are more alike than they’d admit. Compare: Al Gore and George “Dubya” Bush are (1) rich; (2) Southern; (3) daddy’s boys; and (4) arrogant enough to write bad books about why they should be the next chief executive. And most importantly, they have the charisma of cardboard and Styrofoam peanuts, respectively.

I could overlook all that if they seemed just a little interested in making token appearances in these parts. You know, the fawning, baby-bussing, leave-no-hand-unshaken type of visit. They’re doing it elsewhere (hear the campaign machinery grinding in the background); Gore and Bush regularly pull out the obligatory six greetings in Spanish to impress Hispanic voters, and Bush has softened his stance on homosexuality, meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans.

Campaign promises mean diddly, but I’d still like some because this absence of politicking is unflattering and disturbing. What happens when candidates don’t even have to pretend to be interested anymore?

With six months left, Gore and Bush need to take a page from Lamar Alexander’s playbook. Send your lowliest aide out to buy a button-down flannel shirt, don it and an earnest face, pose like a lumberjack-turned-superhero, and get out in the trenches.