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In the middle of the week Ehud Olmert felt that things were lurching out of control. The investigative reports came thick and fast, each one describing another deal. We're in countdown time - the three decisive weeks of the campaign - and with every day that passes Olmert looks less like a candidate for prime minister and more like a real estate shark. Security isn't doing so well, either. A thin drizzle of Qassams continues to fall on the Negev and Israel is not responding. On Wednesday there were two shooting attacks in the West Bank and the defense establishment is talking with certainty about a large wave of terrorism on the eve of the elections.

When Ariel Sharon was on the job things looked very different. The Old Man projected strength and determination even when he did nothing. Olmert can no longer make do with simply "being there," with just not making mistakes. He has to do something, because if he does not set the national agenda all kinds of investigative reporters will set it for him, even if some of the "investigative reports" don't hold water. Olmert's people really took it to heart on Tuesday when Channel 1 played up the story by the investigative reporter Yoav Yitzhak about the house Olmert bought on Cremieux Street in Jerusalem's fashionable German Colony area. Are you nuts, a senior figure in Olmert's party, Kadima, asked a staff member of the public channel - do you want him to lose?

On Wednesday Olmert convened his advisers in his bureau, a group known as the "ITE Forum" (standing for Industry, Trade and Employment, the ministry Olmert continues to work out of). He told them to come up with ideas that would restore his control of the "agenda." Despite the confident facade he is displaying, he is worried and upset. The polls, including those conducted for him by Kadima's house pollster, Kalman Gayer, are on a downward spiral. On January 9, about a week after Sharon's hospitalization with a massive stroke, the Dialog-Haaretz-Channel 10 poll gave Kadima 44 seats; this week - 37. That may not be Olmert's fault, but the seven lost seats are registered in his name. Yet even so Kadima is in good shape. It is losing seats but its two major rivals, the Likud and Labor, are not getting significantly stronger. True, the Likud has inched up but Labor is still entrenched below the glass ceiling of its 19-20 seats.

The votes that are leaving Kadima are entering the pool of undecided voters. Those who left the Likud are not rushing back to their mother party, because they do not cotton to Benjamin Netanyahu. A gulf separates them from the Likud leader. For the same reason, those who left Labor are not rushing back to Peretz. They will continue to sit on the fence until very close to election day, March 28. If no catastrophe occurs in the security realm or in the investigating reporting realm (there are incessant rumors of a mega-investigative report that threatens to bring the ceiling down on Olmert's head) they will return, insh'Allah.

Something new, again

"The public," as Yehuda Harel, a former MK from the Golan Heights once said, "wants something new, as long as it's the way it used to be." Harel wasn't talking about politics but about consumer labels, such as Tnuva's cottage cheese or Elite's "red cow" chocolate bar - products that are constantly being supposedly renewed - in packaging, in appearance, in advertising jingle - but actually stay the same.

In this election campaign the political product that most closely matches Harel's description is Kadima. The content is old and familiar: the same Olmert, the same Shimon, the same Mofaz, the same Haims and Dalias - but the wrapping is new and captivating. Despite the ongoing erosion in the polls - from 42 seats on average in January to 38 seats on average in February - Kadima, to paraphrase the witticism of top policy adviser Dov Weissglas, is on a diet but is far from death. Very far.

The mock elections in several high schools, which ended this week with the ludicrous and bizarre festival at Blich High School (the school that is never wrong about the real election results, except in the cases when it is wrong), this time played a more important role than in the past, because of Kadima. It was the first time that Kadima, a nascent party barely three months old, was tested in the voting booth. Until then it never contested anything against anyone, other than in the public opinion polls. Of 30 schools in which its strength was tested in mock elections, it finished first in 25, getting about 40 seats in most of them. Kadima proved that it is not a virtual party that exists only in the polls and in the media. Olmert's strategic advisers invested time and thought - and not a little money - in the high-schoolers. They wanted to persuade the public that there is someone and something to work for.

What else did the school elections show? That boys and girls of 16-18 tend to vote according to what they hear at home. It's only when they enter the army that they start to develop independent outlooks. But at this school age they are still the spitting image of Mom and Dad, unless there is a serious problem at home. So from this point of view, the knockout Kadima dealt its adversaries in the high schools can be seen as a kind of portent.

"Home," says Prof. Michal Shamir, of the Political Science Department of Tel Aviv University, "is an excellent predictor as compared to other predictors in terms of voting trends. This is true also of young people of this age." She notes, too, "There is a problem in regard to Kadima. It is a new party, without a history, but there is a very clear 'climate of opinion' about it. That climate says that it is a winner. The polls, too, in poll after poll, say the same. This is not something abstract. It is something strong. I definitely see a situation in which a third of the voters will cast their ballot for Kadima."

Here are a few interesting examples from the high schools. At Sha'ar Hanegev, a school where most of the students are from kibbutzim, Labor got 28 percent and Kadima 26 percent. At Makif Het, in Be'er Sheva, a Likud city, Kadima got 41 seats, Shas 18, Labor 16, the National Union 9 and the Likud 5; the teachers in that school also voted (separately from the students) and in that vote Kadima got 43 seats, Labor 26, the Likud 3 and Yisrael Beiteinu 19. At Kili School in Givatayim, an historic Labor bastion, Kadima got 61 percent, Labor 24 percent and the Likud 8 percent. At the Kiryat Motzkin branch of the ORT vocational schools network, Kadima won 47 percent, Labor 26 percent and the Likud 12 percent. Appelman High School in the southern town of Dimona gave Kadima 24 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu 23, the Likud 12, and Labor and Shas 19 each. In ORT Ashkelon, Kadima gained 45 percent, the National Union 12.5 percent and the Likud 17.5 percent. That is the secret of the charm wielded by the center: both in right-wing bastions and in leftwing bastions, everyone finds what he looking for in it.

Gambled and won

"If I had lost, that could have been very interesting," Netanyahu said late Wednesday night, after the Likud Central Committee approved his proposal to have the party's members choose the Knesset candidates. Would he have resigned? The question makes him laugh. "I intend to lead the Likud for many years," he promises. The political spin by his adversaries that he will be ousted the day after the elections does not impress him. He knows exactly where that talk originates - from the senior, indeed very senior MK who is spreading this poison against him as methodically as an exterminator. He guffaws. "How will they be able to oust me through the party's members? They can appreciate the leadership power that was displayed here, the risk I took. If I had not done this, the Likud would have become irrelevant." Inwardly he undoubtedly added, I would have become irrelevant.

In the past week Netanyahu said to every MK he met with, "You can forget about my leaving after the elections." Implicit in this comment is acknowledgement that the battle is lost, that he will have to wait for the next round. He is no longer convinced that his show of strength on Wednesday will get the Likud six more seats - as he promised on the eve of the vote - but in the Likud's situation even one or two more seats is something to write home about.

Netanyahu is a good campaigner. In the past couple of days he set an agenda. The media dealt with him and with the Likud - the "rejuvenated" Likud - favorably. That is rare. He gambled and succeeded. Maybe he was too successful. He scored a goal into an empty net: he did not have any real opposition. But he did shake things up. "I could only have done it now," he admits, "because of the sense of urgency and emergency." After a brief pause for thought, he adds, "I am pretty good at it."

In the television commercials that will start to be broadcast next week, the Likud will present Netanyahu head-to-head against Olmert. That is the right strategy. Of the three major candidates, Netanyahu is the most experienced. He has an impressive record of work as finance minister and he will try to persuade the public that he has drawn and internalized the lessons from his previous term as prime minister. But past experience shows that the commercials have no real impact, other than in rare cases, such as in 1996 (the commercial of the shattering glass of Peres and Arafat) or 1999 (Ehud Barak's commercial showing the storming of the hijacked Sabena plane). Who remembers the 2001 and 2003 commercials? Then, too, as now, the feeling was that it was a done deal and the commercials had low viewing ratings.

Senior figures in the Likud - former and future cabinet ministers - hope Olmert will turn to them to form a government after the elections. "Heaven forbid we should stay in the opposition," one of them said this week. "It really doesn't suit me to be militant and shout in the Knesset alongside Effi Eitam and Benny Elon. Is there any way I am going to out-shout them?"

In his view, "Bibi [Netanyahu] also has to aspire to return to the government quickly. His great days were as finance minister under Sharon. It was then that he gained public popularity and recognition of his skills, won the legitimacy he needs so badly."

But how will the Likud behave in an Olmert government, the senior figure was asked. We saw how you behaved in the Sharon government, and he was your party chairman. "You will be surprised," he replied. "The Likud will be more moderate in the next government than it was in the Sharon government. We learned something. Even if we vote in the cabinet against certain moves, in the Knesset we will always be loyal to the government. Olmert," he said solemnly, "can count on us."