WASHINGTON - With the debates behind them, George W. Bush and Al Gore began their three-week sprint to Election Day yesterday, with both sides acknowledging that there might be too little time for one candidate to open a significant lead by Nov. 7.
Both campaigns will focus advertising and voter outreach resources on the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
"Whoever wins two of those three wins the election," predicted Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who directed Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign.
After strong performances in the first two debates, Bush had hoped the third and final debate Tuesday night might finish Gore off.
But with Gore prevailing narrowly in many post-debate polls that asked viewers who won, the showdown almost certainly did not meet those expectations.
The debate might not have pulled too many voters to the vice president, either.
For one thing, the debate drew a relatively small audience. Nielsen Media Research put the audience at 37.7 million, far fewer than the 46.6 million who watched the first debate Oct. 3 and about the same number who watched the second debate Oct. 11.
The audience Tuesday night was half the size of the audience that watched the third debate of the 1992 campaign.
That means that the final 20 days of the campaign will be a state-by-state struggle. On the electoral map, Gore might have the stiffer challenge, said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. The vice president must not only contest traditional battleground states, but must also shore up support in usually Democratic Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Iowa.
Republicans say Bush has to bolster his support in just two states he had once seen as easy victories, Florida and Ohio.
But Bush has the fundamental problem of trying to unseat an incumbent administration in robust economic times. Bush advisers say the governor achieved two key victories in the three presidential debates. They insist that he dispelled doubts that he has the capacity to be president and that he shifted the terms of the debate.
Instead of allowing Gore to claim credit for the prosperity of the 1990s, Bush's aides say, the governor portrayed Gore as a departure from a centrist Clinton White House toward a more liberal, free-spending agenda.
"The status quo is no longer on the ballot this time," said Charles Black, a Bush adviser. "That was an important victory."
Democrats say they are not so sure. In a poll last week, Hart found that up to a quarter of respondents say their votes are up for grabs, primarily because neither candidate has captured the electorate's fancy. Bush's problem, Hart said, remains some voters' nagging perception that he lacks presidential stature.
"The debates didn't prove that he wasn't up to the job," Hart conceded. "But they weren't proof that he was up to the job, either. That's still his biggest shortcoming."
Ron Klain, a senior Gore adviser, said, "There is a big choice here. Two candidates with two very different plans for our prosperity, how to extend it and how to make sure everyone shares it."
To drive home that choice, Gore, beginning Monday, will meet with one family each morning for the rest of the campaign, in a home, restaurant or workplace, to discuss the nation's economic future.
If Gore can refocus the race from personality to economic policy, he should be able to win, predicted Thomas Mann, a senior fellow of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and an informal Gore adviser.
If Bush can keep the focus on the more intangible issues of likability and trust, he could pull ahead. Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, noted that at this time in the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan held a slender 3-point lead over Jimmy Carter in the Gallup poll, half the lead Bush held in yesterday's Gallup tracking poll.
Voters in the final weeks became comfortable with Reagan's style, and the Republican ended up defeating Carter by 10 points.
"In the next few days, we will see Bush get his mandate," said Reed, the Republican strategist.
But the economy is far healthier this year than it was 20 years ago, and Gore can still bank on support generated by the Clinton economic record, especially among minorities.
David Bositis, an expert on African-American voting at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said Gore has done well in securing the allegiance that black voters still hold for President Clinton.
Prosperity, apathy and cynicism might keep voter turnout to record lows Nov. 7, Bositis said. But a more energized black electorate, coupled with an NAACP voter turnout drive, could heighten the influence of black voters.
That could be extremely helpful to Gore in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri and especially Florida. That state's black population is 13 percent, and many of those voters are resentful of Gov. Jeb Bush, George W. Bush's brother, who ended racial preferences in the state by executive order.