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It’s Vinick vs. Santos, maybe, on ‘The West Wing’

Who will be next president on show?
/ Source: The Associated Press

If Jimmy Smits is destined to become the next U.S. president, he’s not dressing the part.

Wearing a track suit, athletic shoes and slouchy hat pulled low over his forehead to an interview, he looks exactly like a star traveling incognito and not a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Is this a bid to deflect speculation about whether Matt Santos, his character on “The West Wing,” wins the Democratic presidential nomination in Wednesday’s season finale and the election next year?

Turns out Smits is wearing a poker face along with his casual look.

“Bet on the ‘M*A*S*H’ guy, that’s what I say,” he told The Associated Press. He’s talking about former “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda, back on series TV as Republican presidential contender Arnold Vinick.

Yeah, right. Not a chance Smits is giving away next year’s outcome, when viewers will learn who follows two-term President Josiah “Jeb” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in the Oval Office.

Smits is equally cagy about whether Santos will be the Democrat who faces Vinick in the show’s seventh season. The election will be in an episode airing in late fall, with the inauguration in early 2006.

Last week, Santos rejected the vice presidential spot on a ticket headed by current Vice President Russell (Gary Cole), deciding he couldn’t play second fiddle to the second-rate veep.

Despite party pressure to avoid a convention floor fight — after a seamlessly united GOP meeting anointed Vinick — Santos looked like he was ready for combat with Russell and Pennsylvania Gov. Baker (Ed O’Neill).

Smits offers to divulge a bit of the drama that unfolds 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday. Talking to executive producer John Wells shortly after the real-world 2004 political conventions were held, both remarked on how carefully controlled and sterile the events were (with the exception, Smits says, of Barack Obama’s rousing speech).

“The Democratic convention on ‘West Wing’ will be more reminiscent of Chicago but not in terms of its violence. There’s going to be a convention, not a slickly produced television show,” he said.

The 1968 Chicago gathering, marked by wild protests and arrests, produced losing candidate Hubert Humphrey (defeated by Richard Nixon).

“The West Wing” convention could result in something more remarkable than chaos: A Santos victory would put the fictional world ahead of the real one in giving a Hispanic a chance for the presidency.

“It counts for a lot,” Smits said, especially among young people who can be inspired to aim “for something better.”

Time for a party switch?A Santos presidency likely would be cast in the liberal Bartlet mold. A win by Vinick, a moderate U.S. senator from California, would open a new storytelling horizon for the show — and require changes in the White House staff that includes series stars John Spencer, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff.

But the party switch would put the show created by Aaron Sorkin in tune with political reality for the first time in five years. When “The West Wing” debuted in September 1999, Democrat Bill Clinton was in office; since 2001, Republican George W. Bush has been in power.

Vinick is far from a Bush mirror image, however. This season, he’s been portrayed as a man who questions his own faith and refuses to allow religious fervor, or lack thereof, to be a campaign issue.

He’s also an abortion rights supporter, although he tried and failed to draw an anti-abortion candidate onto the ticket as vice president.

Wells acknowledges a GOP candidate of Vinick’s stripe would have trouble surviving to a general election. He blames the primary system, he says, for encouraging candidates in both parties to embrace an extremism antithetical to most Americans.

“We do try to point out ways this could be done better, whether or not it’s politically feasible. ... We have a system that’s seriously broken in the primary process,” he said.

Vinick’s challenge in the general election will be to “energize the people who ring door bells,” the party’s conservative faithful, Wells said.

This year, as the series has shifted between the campaigns and White House crises, the political machinations have provided a new energy.

“Any time you find a story area you haven’t done before, it’s very exciting. That’s really the challenge in a long-running series,” Wells said.

The hard-fought campaign brought a ratings bounce but, as in the past, the numbers dipped when the Fox hit “American Idol” returned. For the season to date, “The West Wing’ is averaging 11.2 million weekly viewers; at its peak, it drew 17.2 million.

NBC renewed the show for next season, noting it draws one of television’s most affluent audiences for sponsors. Wells also has a strong relationship with the network as producer of other series including the long-running “ER.”

Smits, who is contracted to remain with “The West Wing” through next season, as is Alda, said he’ll be happy whether his character is central to the outcome or not.

A series veteran (“L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue”), Smits said he can occupy himself creating a show for ABC under a development deal he recently signed with the network.

Playing the loser might have another benefit. In a visit to a doctor’s office recently, Smits was confronted by a man who recognized him from “The West Wing” and who “espoused the whole Republican thing to me.”

“I just say the lines, man,” was the actor’s nonpartisan response.