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WHEN BOB DOLE CALLED the other day for a televised campaign debate between his wife, Elizabeth, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, he ventured into uncharted gender territory fraught with peril for the two career women as well as their husbands.

Is this idea for real or just a cute stunt?The soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee threw his wife to the debate wolf because he confronts polls that show female voters prefer Clinton to himself by a decisive 2-to-1 margin.

Hiding behind his wife will not reverse that trend, which is based mostly on GOP policy positions that many women consider hostile to their interests. But a debate could advertise her warm and likable Southern charm and soften his own sardonic image.

"Great," enthused Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour.

Ideally, pitting the candidate's wives against each other in a verbal duel could be a tool to demonstrate how far women have come in winning acceptance as serious players in the world of political power.

Yet such a showdown would be risky for both sides. It would elevate the role of first lady - by its nature an undefined and subsidiary post - to a level previously reserved for policymakers who dare to put their names on the ballot. Already much of the political objection to Hillary Clinton is that she seems to exercise too much authority for a public figure never elected in her own right.

And the two women - both disciplined, ambitious lawyers - are more alike than most people realize.

Although Elizabeth Dole enjoys the more feminine image, it is she who has had a single-minded, high-level career separate from her husband's while Hillary Clinton's role has been that of a bright, independent wife whose professional life remained tied to her husband and his causes.

Both women have been criticized for business deals that smack uncomfortably of insider favoritism.

A recent USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll, however, indicates that 46 percent of those surveyed view Elizabeth Dole favorably and only 16 percent see her unfavorably. An explanation may lie, as her husband once said, in the fact that "she doesn't threaten anybody."

By contrast, Hillary Clinton divides voters right down the middle; 47 percent in the poll view her favorably while 48 percent view her unfavorably. Nearly everybody has heard of her and she generates intense emotion, pro and con, just as her husband does.

Bet on it, each debater would try to out-nice the other.

They would likely dress modestly but very well, smile winningly at each other, talk about their love for children and their desire to help others. And bore us all stiff.