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Tonight's screen test: playoff or politics?

When the sisters of the Society of St. Margaret meet and pray this morning at their Roxbury convent, they will have a daunting decision to make: whether the television set in the lounge should be tuned tonight to the presidential debate or the American League Championship game.

''God is a Red Sox fan," Sister Carolyn Darr, the superior of the Episcopal religious order, said about the difficulty of weighing the merits of each. ''But I think he's a Kerry fan, too."

Hometown son and Democratic nominee John F. Kerry takes on President Bush tonight in a third and final debate in their fight for the Oval Office. But at the same time, the Red Sox are re-engaging a rivalry that has smoldered in the ashes of last year's Game 7 defeat by the New York Yankees. There may never be a starker choice in a city with two equally fundamental obsessions, politics and baseball. In stately homes and dorm rooms, nursing homes and bars, university auditoriums and hotel rooms on the campaign trail, decisions are being made about what to watch. None of them are easy.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a Democrat and ardent baseball fan, won't even say which he plans to watch. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who will be in Los Angeles tonight on a Kerry fund-raising trip, is straddling the line publicly. He said he plans to watch both the Red Sox and the debate at a private home with several televisions.

''I will be keeping an eye on both," Kennedy said through his spokesman, David Smith. ''I'll be curious to see who hits the most fouls, George Bush or the Yankees."

US Representative Martin T. Meehan was forced to take sides yesterday when an editor at The Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence drilled him on his loyalties. It was the first question asked at the editorial board meeting, Meehan's spokesman said.

''He said, 'Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm going to be watching the Red Sox and taping the debate to watch later,' " Matt Vogel said.

The congressman was careful later to reinforce his dedication to Kerry. The choice of what to watch live ''doesn't reflect my commitment to the senator at all," Meehan said in a phone interview.

At some local colleges and universities, administrators have decided to provide broadcasts of both the game and the debate, in the interest of maximizing political participation.

Even Harvard University has made concessions, installing an additional screen to broadcast the Sox, without sound, in the John F. Kennedy School of Government's forum, alongside the debate.

''I simply know one does not compete against a local sports team that's riding high," said Phil Sharp, acting director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. Sharp will be watching only the debate, ''as an obligation to my position," but he conceded that he might cast an occasional eye on the game.

During the other debates, the institute had political specialists on hand for questions and discussion, but Sharp said that tonight the school is providing only snacks and the debate broadcast. Could the pundits have declined to attend, preferring to watch the game? Sharp declined to say.

At Emerson College, which organized debate-watching evenings for the three prior presidential and vice presidential debates, organizers are also installing a second television in the auditorium for the game (and are planning to serve hot dogs).

Analysts will keep an eye on both screens and perhaps engage in some observations about Kerry's progress in relation to that of the Red Sox.

''If the Sox go up, his excitement level might increase, and if they're down, he might turn back to droning on in his Senate style," said J. Gregory Payne of the Department of Organizational and Political Communication, who is organizing the event.

The debate-game dilemma extends well outside the borders of Red Sox nation to New York, where fans and political literati are equally divided. David Halberstam, the journalist and prolific author who counts among his books tomes on baseball and politics, plans to watch the debate. But he's not happy about it.

''It's a really hard choice, and I think it's an unfair one," said Halberstam, who has homes in Massachusetts and New York.

Though often a Yankees fan, he is rooting for the Red Sox this year. ''I'm a divided soul," he said and then invoked William Faulkner, saying the rivalry puts ''the human heart in conflict with itself."

''I think the political gods should have done a better job of trying to schedule the debate when the National League teams are playing," he said.

Author John Updike said he didn't think the baseball-debate decision was nearly so dire. With the long commercial breaks in the game, Updike said, viewers should have enough time to flip back and forth and glean the important points from both broadcasts.

''I think people can straddle this one," said Updike, a Massachusetts resident and avid Red Sox fan who won't be watching either event, but playing bridge. ''Kerry and the Red Sox, they kind of go together like ham and eggs."

Ben Affleck, who is in Vancouver shooting ''Man About Town," said there may not be a harder decision for him.

''These are his two passions, obviously, and it was a tough choice," said Affleck's publicist, Ken Sunshine. ''After much consternation, he's decided he's going to watch the game live and tape the debate."

Globe correspondent Heather Allen contributed to this report.Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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