WASHINGTON, D.C. — The cast of “The West Wing,’’ led by Martin Sheen and the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin, is giving the city a welcome break from a season of biting cold and partisan bickering. On-set at the Mellon Auditorium, Stockard Channing, dressed as Democratic First Lady Abby Bartlet, wears a burgundy silk Badgley Mischka gown and Harry Winston loaners, including an 18th-century pin owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though she’s wearing work boots and jeans under her gown, Channing stays in character when it comes to sloughing off a question about Democratic presidential candidates. “It doesn’t matter,” she jokes. “We already won the election.”

The plot line has Sheen feeling particularly presidential as he invites about 30 fans huddled outside on Constitution Avenue inside to see the set. He spends his time reviewing what he magnanimously refers to as “40,000 new lines of script” with his 18-year-old grandson Taylor Estevez. And the pressure is on. Sorkin is still writing the two-episode script, which airs Wednesday and on Feb. 12 on NBC.

This story first appeared in the February 4, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Now that Al Gore has dropped out of the race, Martin Sheen has agreed to endorse me and campaign for me with the young voters,” says Dr. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who is running for the Democratic president nomination and who has stopped by the set. He’s clearly dazzled by the similarities between his campaign and the “The West Wing” story line about “an obscure governor from a northeastern state. And if I’m elected, my wife will move to Washington to practice medicine [as did Abby Bartlet].”

The next day, Madeleine Albright shows up on-set, thanks to a chance meeting on a flight from L.A. with Bradley Whitford, who plays Joshua Lyman, deputy communications secretary. “There’s a line between fiction and reality,” Albright points out. “Last week when I went up to the Hill to try to get the Democratic caucus to vote for foreign aid, it was just like an episode three weeks ago. I was saying the same things trying to explain the need for foreign assistance.”

Of course, there is also the possibility that fantasy and reality could merge in dangerous ways. Sheen, who has already joined in two antiwar demonstrations this year, risks jail if he breaks probation, a three-year restriction slapped on him by a Los Angeles judge for joining in a Greenpeace demonstration. “We have a bail-out fund in petty cash for him — along with the pizza money,” says Sorkin with a laugh.

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