IN CASE ANYONE HAD doubts, Donald Trump showed himself Tuesday (and "show" is the operative word) a master of promotion. Who else but "The Donald" could squeeze gigantic free publicity, and the public's attention for a full nanosecond, out of the tired Miss USA pageant?

Because gorgeous women wearing less than a bathing suit are now readily viewable by anyone with Internet access, the public's interest in beauty pageants has been spiraling downward for years. TV audiences no longer have patience to spend hours watching a show as tame and predictable as the contestants' inevitable wishes, in the final round, for world peace.

So of course practically no one knew before Tuesday who Tara Conner was, until they learned Trump, the famous apprentice-firer, might fire her for (depending on which rumor mills were running at the moment) engaging in underage drinking, illicit drugs or a possible intimate moment with Miss Teen USA. Trust Trump to know that what this show needed was a story line, one as quick, emotional and easily resolved as a Pepsi commercial. Better yet, a story line with a star -- himself cast as the forgiving priest of beauty pageants -- and a pretty girl as sidekick.

He emerged from his Tuesday meeting with Conner to announce that she was just a simple girl from a small town in Kentucky who had found fame too quickly in the Big Apple and been lured to ... you can guess the rest.

No one said Trump was a spinner of original tales, just a great spinner.

Conner will keep her title, as long as she seeks help for a problem and, more important, becomes a spokeswoman for people seeking help for a problem (and who isn't?). Even though Conner is saying that she isn't quite an alcoholic, she must have some kind of problem she could use to help others.

In the old days, the small-town girl's story might have ended with an older-but-wiser return to Kentucky, a romantic triumph over the mean streets of New York or an American tragedy. Today, it invariably ends in rehab.

And unlike the case of Vanessa Williams, the 1984 Miss America who gave up her crown after nude photos of her appeared in Penthouse, redemption nowadays can take place on the job.

Unless, of course, you're Oxana Fedorova. She's the Miss Universe whom Trump did fire in 2002 for failing to show for publicity shoots.

Now there's an unpardonable offense.

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