With three climactic weeks remaining in the fiercely fough Maryland governor's race, the candidates are scrambling for ways to attract undecided voters -- a segment of the electorate that could make all the difference come Election Day.
Their target is the truly uncommitted, a group within the broader electorate.
They number about 175,000 voters of the 1.5 million who are expected to vote this year. Add another 400,000 voters if the definition of undecided extends to those whose support for Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening or GOP challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey is soft.
Many of the hard-core uncommitted may stay at home on Election Day. But a recent poll conducted for The Sun and other news organizations suggests many are looking for ways to connect with one of the candidates.
Polls show support hardening for both candidates as the Nov. 3 election approaches. The notion that a small number of swing voters might determine the election seems all the more alluring against the backdrop of 1994, a race in which Glendening beat Sauerbrey by 5,993 votes out of 1.4 million cast.
Veteran politicians and campaign professionals hold that even a race as closely contested as this one does not really begin until the last two or three weeks when voters begin to pay attention. Both campaigns are working to solidify their core support, skewer their opponents with TV ads and avoid a devastating gaffe at a time when every word will count.
So the voter with an open mind is a voter to be targeted -- a voter like Zelma Blue in Baltimore.
"I'm not sure," said Blue, the unemployed mother of an 8-year-old, who has some sympathy for Sauerbrey. "She's pretty cool right now. She seems like she could be pretty good for the children, for kids. I need to read up some more, get some literature."
The poll, conducted from Sept. 29 through Oct. 3, shows that most voters are not unhappy with their choices this year -- but some are undecided because both candidates have offended them.
"I don't like either one of 'em," said Adam Gisinger White of Westminster, a 23-year-old Republican who smokes and who fears Sauerbrey's downsizing of government could cost his father a job. "I don't like Sauerbrey because my father works for the state. And I don't like Glendening because of the cigarette rules," a reference to efforts to prohibit smoking in state buildings.
Some still seem open to either candidate.
Mildred Scheiner of Columbia, a 61-year-old nurse, said she doesn't know whom she will vote for or even how she will make her decision: "I just kind of listen to what they have to say. I think Glendening's a fine person. I'm just not overwhelmed with what he's done."
And as for Sauerbrey, Sheiner said: "She sounds OK."
With so much depending on voter turnout -- very low in September's primary -- neither candidate wants to seem merely OK. So the last weeks of the campaign will almost certainly see each candidate hammering at the other's perceived deficiencies.
That could be a perilous enterprise -- especially with the undecideds -- according to Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted The Sun's poll. As compared with the rest of the Maryland voters recently polled, undecideds tend to have a more favorable view of both candidates. "They've heard a lot of negatives," Haller said. "More of the same won't get at this group."
The poll findings suggest various strategic approaches for both candidates as they seek the undecideds' favor.
Sauerbrey, Haller suggests, "needs to stay with her game plan, the education themes. She wants to accentuate moderate approaches. She should highlight her tax cut idea for the elderly. It hasn't resonated there, but it has great potential."
"If she did have to question him [go negative, in other words], she should stay with the character-type issues," Haller said. "And she should remember the 1998 cardinal rule: Stay away from the Clinton-Lewinsky matter."
The polls suggests that Glendening needs to narrow the distance between him and many Marylanders.
"The voters are desperately wanting to know this man and his advertising is not letting them do that," Haller said. "Third-party testimonials, even those offered by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend don't work. He needs to speak personally from the gut, the heart."
The Democrat's campaign has tacitly agreed with that assessment. Glendening released a new ad late last week that has him speaking directly to his audience -- and focusing on the environment, a strong issue for him among the undecideds, Haller said.
Herbert C. Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College, agrees that Glendening has failed to communicate his strengths -- and his opponent's weaknesses. "He needs better bullets or an ad agency with a sense of humor," Smith said.
The Glendening campaign also agrees their man needs to confront his low positive ratings.