Close call could be a landslide


President: Several factors could tip a pre-election deadlock into a decisive victory in the race.

October 31, 2004|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, the 2004 presidential campaign is going down to its final days close enough to feed widespread speculation about the possibility of deadlock and perhaps prolonged litigation. Each party has legions of lawyers at the ready.

But some astute political professionals believe either President Bush or Democrat Sen. John Kerry could win a comfortable -- perhaps even one-sided -- margin in the Electoral College if not the popular vote.

This could happen, they suggest, if even a minor development in the news of the day or the campaign reaches a small bloc of voters whose commitment to their candidate is tentative.

As Peter Hart, a respected Democratic poll-taker, puts it, "Any little breeze can turn it into an electoral mandate."

Or, Maurice Carroll, director of the independent Quinnipiac Poll: "At this stage, any little wrinkle matters."

On paper, Kerry would seem better positioned to become the beneficiary of late movement in the electorate. The evidence of a demand for change among Americans is abundant. Kerry has raised far more money than Democrats usually manage.

Through their political allies spending huge sums of unregulated political money, the Democrats have gained an advantage in registering new voters who can be reached and brought to the polls Tuesday. The impressive audience for the three televised campaign debates suggests popular interest and a high turnout, ordinarily a favorable indicator for the Democrats.

There is an unspoken consensus among political strategists of both parties that a significantly larger turnout would favor Kerry as the candidate who represents change.

But some of the usually reliable measures are less clearly defined in this campaign.

For example, opinion polls show that 57 percent to 58 percent of the voters say the nation is "off on the wrong track" rather than "heading in the right direction" -- a finding that usually means very bad news for incumbents. That was the case in 1992 when Democrat Bill Clinton unseated the first President Bush.

But polling expert Hart points out that the "wrong track number" during the final days of George H.W. Bush reached 70 percent as he polled only 38 percent of the vote against two battle-scarred challengers, Clinton and Ross Perot.

And Ed Goeas, a well-regarded Republican pollster, points out that his most recent survey finds Bush with a 52 percent-to-45 percent "favorable-to-unfavorable" rating on his performance in office despite a 54 percent "wrong track" -- an unusual pattern that suggests intense support for the president in spite of voter concerns.

This phenomenon might reflect the relative weight of the key issues in the campaign. The president's prime source of strength is his claim to be better capable of dealing with terrorism. The opinion polls show he has been successful enough to win voters who might be expected to lean more Democratic -- women in several age groups, for instance.

The terrorism issue doesn't play evenly everywhere. Unsurprisingly, a survey of New Jersey by Quinnipiac shows Bush far stronger than any Republican might expect. "It really resonates in New Jersey," Carroll said. "It [the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center] was so close."

The question on the terrorism issue is whether Kerry has gained enough credibility to be seen as a safe steward of national security. In any campaign against an incumbent president, voters are taking some risk, and Bush has been assiduous in trying to exploit those doubts.

And, although they won't say so publicly, some Democratic professionals agree with Republican Goeas that "Kerry is not closing the sale on the risk factor." Or, as one Democrat put it, "Kerry hasn't passed the terrorism threshold."

But Kerry has been gaining steadily in most surveys, his image clearly enhanced by his performance in the three debates. And, as the polls also show, the backdrop of chaos in Iraq filling the television screens night after night undermines Bush's claim of competence on national security to the extent that voters connect Iraq and terrorism.

Kerry's strongest issue is clearly the economy. But the issue might not have the same sting as it has in the past. "The change dynamic is not as large as it was in previous years," says Hart. "The economy is not as bad, so people are negative on the economy, but not dour."

Still, the economic problems are concentrated in blue-collar states and have given Kerry a clear lead in Michigan and Pennsylvania and an even chance, at least, in Ohio.

But if the economy is a definite plus issue for Kerry, the same could be said for the "values" issues -- meaning things such as abortion rights and homosexual rights -- for Bush. Surveys by Goeas show, for instance, that when voters are asked whether Bush or Kerry shares their values, the president has been capturing 50 percent to Kerry's 41-44 percent throughout the campaign.

Terrorism and values are, of course, the heart of the Bush candidacy. They have given him 90 to 94 percent of Republicans, compared with a commitment to Kerry by 85 to 88 percent of Democrats.

What is not clear is whether these issues are enough to trump dismay over the war in Iraq and Kerry's support on the economy, health care, education and the environment.

That leads, of course, to the ruling clichM-i of the last week of any campaign -- that turnout is the answer. In this case, it can be enough to give the nation a clear verdict Tuesday night. The reports of heavy early voting say that all those lawyers might not be necessary.

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