National race may be closest in generation

Gore, Bush to focus on key states in middle of country

Polls show dead-even battle

Lead lost, Republican realizing that he faces `a real tough' fight

Election 2000

September 03, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As the fall campaign sprint begins, Al Gore and George W. Bush are zeroing in on America's heartland for what could be the closest presidential contest in a generation.

New national voter surveys being released this week are expected to show that Gore has succeeded in wiping out Bush's yearlong advantage in the opinion polls. Most recent polls have shown them running dead even, though a Newsweek survey this weekend gives Gore a 10-point edge.

At the same time, the electoral map indicates a considerable tightening in the state-by-state competition since last month's Democratic convention, when Gore's campaign began to take off.

The vice president has chipped away at Bush's electoral-vote advantage, gaining in states such as New Jersey and Minnesota. He is also forcing Bush to spend time and money defending Florida, a must-win state for Bush, whose brother Jeb is the governor.

Typically, close presidential elections are decided by a handful of big states in the nation's midsection. This year's contest could follow that pattern, politicians say.

But the possibility of an unusually tight finish has the campaigns fighting over states as tiny as Delaware, using television stations on Maryland's Eastern Shore as part of an effort to capture Delaware's three electoral votes.

"It's going down to the wire," predicts Republican consultant Scott W. Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and heads a group that is airing anti-Gore ads in Pennsylvania and Washington state.

Unlike other elections, presidential contests are decided by electoral votes, not the popular vote tally. The candidate who wins the most votes in each state is entitled to a number of electoral votes equal to that state's total number of senators and representatives. A majority of 270 electoral votes (out of 538 votes in the 50 states and the District of Columbia) is needed to win the presidency.

Today, in what Gore describes as a "symbolic message" to voters, the Democratic ticket is jumping the Labor Day starting gun with a round-the-clock campaign swing up and down the East Coast and into the Midwest. Such a stunt, usually reserved for the closing hours before an election, shows how far the candidates are going this year to secure even the smallest perceived advantage.

Bush will wait until tomorrow to kick off his fall effort, in a suburb of Chicago. But the Republicans launched a negative ad blitz this weekend in an effort to halt Gore's progress. Democrats countered by accusing the Bush side of desperation tactics and predicted the ads would backfire.

Publicly, Bush claims to be unruffled by the most recent polls. Late last week, he told reporters, "I don't know who's ahead."

Privately, he has his finger on the latest numbers from every key state, building on a base of knowledge gained from working in his father's 1988 and 1992 campaigns.

One Bush adviser, after reviewing the political landscape with Bush the other day, says the Texas governor "knows it's a real tough race."

Concerned about polls

Bush remains optimistic. But he is concerned about polls that show him falling behind Gore in New Mexico, one of the few Southern or Western states that are in play, as well as by the situation in Florida, where Gore has shown surprising strength, according to the adviser, who spoke on condition he not be identified.

"Bush said, `This is as low as I'm going to be,'" reports the adviser, referring to national voter surveys that put Bush either tied with Gore or trailing by a slight margin.

One reason politicians put so much stock in Labor Day polls: For the past half-century, the candidate who held a clear lead around this holiday weekend has gone on to win in November.

In 1960 and 1980, the race was a virtual dead heat in early September. Some see parallels in this year's competition.

"It looks more like '60 than '80 to me," says presidential scholar Charles O. Jones of the University of Wisconsin.

In 1960, no incumbent was running, though a vice president (Richard M. Nixon) was attempting to succeed a two-term president (Dwight D. Eisenhower). But economic uncertainty hampered Nixon's effort that year, a problem Gore doesn't face after the longest economic boom on record.

John F. Kennedy wound up winning that year with a popular vote margin of less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

The last close election was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter unseated President Gerald Ford by a margin of 2 percentage points. In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened up a 10-point lead over Carter by Election Day.

Jones noted that Gore has been surprisingly successful in redefining the terms of the race, focusing on issues, such as prescription drugs for seniors, that favor him, and putting Bush on the defensive in states with large numbers of older voters, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

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