I recently rented The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s classic documentary following Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. James Carville and George Stephanopolous are its stars, the young Stephanopolous as a slick political operator, Carville as the wild but wise veteran who says outrageous things, yet who can compose a brilliant speech off the top of his head.

Carville’s winning strategy is to stay on message, and stay off the defensive. His expletive-laden barbs convey a brilliantly unwavering sanity. Attacking the elder Bush on the dismal state of the economy, Carville speaks to reporters like a one-man quote machine: “The country’s going el-busto. Fix it. If you cain’t, get out the way.” On a dry-erase board, Carville has written his famous “rules” for all the campaign staffers to remember: Change is more of the same; the economy, stupid; don’t forget health care; the debates, stupid.

This was the last successful presidential campaign that unseated a Bush. I wanted to see how they did it, and revel for a moment in the fact that it is possible to do.

So who can beat this Bush? Democratic voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states are in high school gyms and cozy living rooms making careful calculations to answer that question. All political efforts center on one goal. The looming question of electability is why so many of those voters are still undecided.

One truth shines out so far, a truth we’ve learned the hard way in 2000: Voting is not an expression of our highest ideals and principles. Voting is a small but potent exercise of the power that we as individuals posses in this deeply flawed and complicated process.

But here’s the rub: When we calculate electability, what equation are we using?

It seems a bit of a shame to hear polls saying that people believe in one candidate (Dean, for instance) but will vote for another (Kerry, perhaps). It’s not wrong for voters to make decisions that way, but let’s think twice before swallowing the mass media’s conventional wisdom about whether a strong candidate is or isn’t viable.

Shortly after watching The War Room, I saw Diane Sawyer’s cozy, at-home interview with Howard Dean and his wife, Judy. Sawyer kept replaying the footage of Dean’s overexcited speech after the Iowa primary loss, “the scream,” as it’s now called. (What no one says about “the scream,” though it’s clear on the tape, is that Dean wasn’t angry. He was laughing and smiling as he cheered on 3,500 college students.) In classic hall-of-mirrors American media fashion, Sawyer kept asking the loving couple how they felt about the speech, and whether all the media attention on it would devastate his campaign. Dean admitted he looked goofy, but said he wasn’t sorry about trying to pump up the crowd. Every time he began to speak about a substantive issue–health care, how to handle Iraq–Sawyer abruptly cut to yet another question about “the scream.” “Isn’t this in some ways the ‘stand by your man’ interview?” she asks Judy, who’s being interviewed on TV for the first time, as the screen cuts to footage of Bill and Hillary. Diane, can you explain to me in what universe these two events are comparable?

Whether it’s Dean or some other Democrat taking heat for an overblown gaffe, let’s keep in mind that there’s only one War Room this time around. Learn from Carville: Don’t waste energy on damage control. Hammer home the issues: It’s the economy, stupid. And don’t forget health care. And there are the debates.

Oh boy, I can’t wait for the debates.

Winners: This week The Independent is being honored with six awards in our size category from the North Carolina Press Association: First place in investigative reporting for Jennifer Strom’s report on Divers Alert Network; first place in profile feature writing for Fiona Morgan’s story about a transsexual high school student; first place in photo illustration for Alex Maness’ image of a jetliner headed into the Shearon Harris nuclear plant; first place in criticism for Godfrey Cheshire’s film reviews; second place in criticism for Byron Woods’ theater and dance reviews; and third place in editorial writing to Richard Hart. Congratulations to all the winners.