Videogame Lets You Run Campaign

Political couch potatoes who can't get enough of the impending presidential election will find endless fun with "The Political Machine."

This new PC game from Ubisoft pits you as a string-pulling presidential puppet master, aka the campaign manager.

From the running mate to the platform, the decisions are all yours in a simulated 41-week battle for the Oval Office (search).

You start by selecting from a list of candidates, including Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), Bob Dole (search) and John Kerry (search). You can make your own from a list of prefab pictures.

They must be either Democrat or Republican (sorry, there's no third party), but at least you can tweak dozens of personality traits like religion, war experience and intelligence. As in the real world, you can't pit two members of the same party against each other.

With November fast approaching, I went for some simulated realism and picked Kerry in a race against President Bush.

Even on the standard setting, victory was elusive. I avoided the "masochistic" difficulty and the multiplayer options for fear of instant embarrassment.

Several factors play into your strategy: political unrest, the economy, international relations and the general difficulty setting.

As Kerry's fictional campaign manager, I decided it would be best to first set up campaign offices in big states rich in electoral votes: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois.

I supported the war on terror but blasted Bush for his policies in Iraq. I promised new jobs, tax cuts, universal health care and a cleaner environment.

Staying on message was fine, but be aware of the shifting demographics in every state. What your candidate says in liberal-leaning states like Massachusetts won't go over so well in Texas.

The unfortunate truth? It's not always what the candidate believes that matters — it's what the voters want to hear.

"Political Machine" plays out on a map of the United States, with the states shifting between blue (Democrat) and red (Republican) depending on which way voters are leaning.

You can view other information, such as state wealth (good to know for fund-raising), and liberals vs. conservatives (I didn't want to waste too much time sending Kerry to conservative bastions such as Texas).

Eleven weeks in, the polls showed I had a slight lead over Bush. But with 10 weeks to go, Kerry trailed in the polls, with 41 percent supporting Bush, 40 percent favoring Kerry and 18 percent undecided.

If the campaign manager is the engineer, your war chest is the diesel engine that keeps the locomotive moving. After some careless spending on pricey television commercials, we wound up stuck in Florida for three weeks because we didn't have enough money for travel.

Bush, meanwhile, was zipping across the nation, getting his message across to voters.

Things were looking grim by week 41. Bush had surged to a 43 percent lead in the polls, while the Kerry camp clung to hope with 43 percent on his side and 16 percent still undecided.

Election Day wasn't what I had envisioned. My ceaseless campaigning in Florida and Texas paid off with big wins in those states. But I also failed to give enough attention to California and its whopping 55 electoral votes, despite the help of a "Hollywood Friend" which boosted my public awareness. I lost that key state and the election in the Electoral College, 313 votes to 225.

Afterward, I compared the two campaigns (the game conveniently provides exit poll data) and saw one costly mistake: money, as in not enough of it. All told, Bush managed to spend $17.82 million compared to our $13.74 million.

So I'm bloodied and bruised, but not out of the hunt. I've already begun organizing another ticket: Al Gore-Hillary Clinton, anyone?

This time, I'll be a bit more wary of my rival's political operatives, who waged smear campaigns to tarnish Kerry's popularity in battleground states. I'll also try to do a better job of prepping for contentious national media shows such as "The O'Maley Factor" and "60 Seconds."

If you regularly watch C-SPAN or scan the Internet for the latest political gossip, you'll love this unique game and its entertaining spin on the road to the White House. Even if you couldn't care less about politics, this $20, T-rated game serves as a fun, hands-on glimpse of a uniquely American process.

Three stars out of four.