If Arnie can do it, why not Barlet?

Surveying the field for the upcoming presidential election, I’ve concluded that to have any kind of a chance, the Democrats must run an intellectual former New England governor whose wife is a physician.

That’s right: Josiah (Jed) Bartlet for President.

Those lacking in vision and foresight will accurately protest that Bartlet, the gloriously committed commander-in-chief whom Martin Sheen plays on “The West Wing,” technically doesn’t exist. Besides, he’s too much of a liberal, with some believing the show’s depressed ratings are largely attributable to a rightward tilt in the country.

After presumptive frontrunner Howard Dean’s disappointing performance in the Iowa caucuses, however, Bartlet looks more and more like the candidate with a record the Democrats could run on. As for being fictional, if you consider the wholesale blurring of entertainment and politics, of image and reality, that might not be a deal-breaker.

After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger is now California’s governor, thanks largely to the persona crafted in his action movies. Dennis Miller and Kelsey Grammer have subsequently been floated as potential candidates, while thesp Fred Dalton Thompson — who made that jump — parachuted out of the U.S. Senate directly into the cast of “Law & Order.”

Showtime is forging ahead with producer R.J. Cutler’s well-traveled “American Candidate,” which transforms politics into a reality TV project, developing politicians the same way “American Idol” churns out balladeers.

Then again, Dean himself received on-camera debate advice from James Carville — flanked at the time by fictional characters — on HBO’s peculiar reality-drama hybrid “K Street.” More recently, longtime activist Sheen, playing himself, stumped for Dean in Iowa, including an MSNBC interview on the candidate’s behalf.

Let’s face it, the Democrats don’t have a lot to lose here. So recognizing that anyone they put forward will be a long shot, why not push the bounds of licensing and marketing and bet on Bartlet, who stands a better chance than any of the would-be standard-bearers harassing passers-by in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

For starters, Bartlet would enter the race with a notable lack of personal baggage and a skeleton-free closet. He adores his wife and is the father of three lovely daughters who lack the customary first-child rap sheet. (OK, one got kidnapped, but that was just a lame cliffhanging plot device.)

Within the show, Bartlet has already proven he can defeat an inarticulate Southerner, trouncing a political rival played by James Brolin with the same dozing-behind-the-eyes quality he brought to “The Reagans.”

Bartlet is a liberal, to be sure, but a pragmatic one, particularly in regard to foreign policy. His willingness to authorize the clandestine assassination of an Arab official and exercise force abroad suggests this guy isn’t reluctant to wield a big stick when necessary.

Finally, Sheen can sell Bartlet as a man of conviction, with strong values and oratorical panache. Believe me, if you can convincingly rail against an unjust God in flawless Latin, you can wow voters in Michigan and Ohio. (By the way, I dismissed the president in Fox’s “24,” portrayed by Dennis Haysbert, as someone who never has a good day and possesses rotten taste in women, including a recent scheduling liaison with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.)

The notion of a truly two-dimensional candidate is perfectly attuned to the modern media age, where sports (the horse race) and entertainment (the obsession with celebrity) inexorably squeeze more hard-news content out of nightly newscasts, newsmagazines and front pages every day.

Although TV’s drift in this direction was charted by the prescient 1976 film “Network,” the political equivalent emerged a few years later in “Being There.” Writer Jerzy Kosinski brilliantly foresaw that a man with no history was, in essence, the ideal empty vessel for politics. His childlike protagonist, Chance, allowed people to imprint their own hopes upon him, speaking only in the vaguest platitudes.

Given how quickly the media assail a misguided comment or offhanded remark, campaigns have morphed into endurance contests — their own kind of elimination game, where he who makes the fewest mistakes often emerges with the prize. In that context, is it really such a huge leap from today’s blanded-down pols to a made-up one?

Not that I’m alone in this observation. Indeed, next month Sundance Channel will begin re-running “Tanner ’88,” HBO’s satirical series about a fictitious Democratic contender, from director Robert Altman and “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau. Surely ahead of its time, “Tanner” was created when political satire still seemed possible — and launched when the Democrats appeared almost as hapless, nominating Michael Dukakis against the first George Bush.

This call for a Bartlet bandwagon also comes as “The West Wing’s” own future is less than certain. Ratings have stabilized this season — albeit at a decidedly lower level than during its heyday — and the program remains a solid player for NBC, which has plenty of more pressing issues demanding attention.

Still, it has seen younger viewers defect to fare such as ABC’s “The Bachelor” and Fox’s “The OC.” Some critics have grumbled (unfairly, I’d say) about a loss of poetry since series creator/enfant terrible Aaron Sorkin ankled last spring. At the least, it’s no longer TV’s flavor of the month, meaning Emmys and other plaudits won’t come quite so freely.

At a session with TV critics earlier this month, exec producer John Wells conceded the show could live on, in theory, with a new administration, bringing in a different (and less expensive) cast while putting Bartlet — and presumably most of his aides — out to pasture.

Wells also noted the show faces a dicey proposition by seeking to anticipate and parallel current events, saying, “The danger is that you seem frivolous in the midst of … something far more significant and important.”

Certainly, eradicating the smudged line between fact and fiction would be a worthy challenge for a program that has garnered every TV accolade available. And who knows, losing to Bartlet might even compel some real-life politicians to reach for that elusive third dimension so many presently lack.

So vote Bartlet, For a Change. Bartlet, for America. And Bartlet, because if you’re going to get your ass handed to you anyway, well, why the hell not?

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