BOSTON — In an era when politicians are held in about as much esteem as used-car salesmen, a key US Senate matchup in Massachusetts is proving to be something of a novelty: Many voters here like - actually like - the two candidates vying for the seat.
Admiration for both contestants is one reason that, just days before the election, a chunk of the Massachusetts electorate still hasn't decided which one to choose - Gov. William Weld (R) or incumbent Sen. John Kerry (D).
It's not that the public hasn't had ample opportunity to compare the candidates. Both men were already well-known, and the race has long been touted as perhaps the marquee Senate matchup of this election. They've faced off in no fewer than eight televised debates, and they've basked in the publicity of their much-praised pledge to cap campaign spending.
Their candidacies, too, serve to delineate the differences between Republicans and Democrats on the fundamental role of government in America. In choosing a candidate, voters would be indicating the direction Washington should take: Governor Weld's trimmer government and tax cuts for the people, or Senator Kerry's belief in the power of federal programs to aid the needy and protect all.
But voters seemed to have listened to Weld's promises to be tough on criminals and welfare recipients and Kerry's vows to protect Medicare and the environment - and decided that both messages sound attractive. Indeed, polls show that, with the race in a statistical dead heat just days before the election, 10 percent of Massachusetts voters had not lined up behind either candidate.
Few are holding their noses
Massachusetts voters are having trouble picking which man to send to Washington, commentators say, in part because they think highly of both of them.
"This is almost unheard of in politics," says Mark Merritt, who teaches a course on politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Typically voters feel like, 'Which of these two jerks am I going to hold my nose and vote for?' Here, they're going to have to reject someone they like."
"It's a hard one," says Linda Podheiser, on her way to work in Boston's financial district. She says she'll probably choose Kerry in the end because she's a Democrat and believes in maintaining government programs as a safety net. "Otherwise, I don't care for Kerry very much and I like Weld enormously."
Profile of an undecided voter
That's the quandary for many voters. They want both. Political consultants say the profile of the undecided voter in this race is a moderate Democrat who voted Kerry into the Senate in 1990 and Governor Weld into the statehouse in 1994.
Analysts say that, forced to choose between the two, many undecided voters will opt for Kerry - in large part to keep Weld as governor. "I've been batting this around for the past month or so, but basically I like the job Weld has done fiscally for the state. I think we need more of that here," says Acton resident John Christel.
With neither candidate breaking ahead, says University of Massachusetts professor Paul Watanabe, voters started looking for new information. But it never arrived. With the candidates locked into repeating 90-second exchanges during debates, the policy discussion was never elevated to the next level, he says.
So voters began looking more closely at the candidates' personalities and found a common failing: their elite backgrounds.
"Each has fallen short in having any kind of connection with voters," says GOP consultant Todd Domke. "The two candidates have both been so much a part of the elite that voters feel they can't totally be trusted."
When voters choose a candidate, they ask three questions, says Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman. They ask: Does the candidate understand me? Does the candidate care about me? And who can do more for me if elected? "But in this race most of the public believes, because of the enormous wealth that each of these candidates has, neither of them can possibly understand the problems voters face," Mr. Goldman says. "So the race has come down to caring and who can do more for me."
In the end, despite a slight edge in the polls for Kerry, experts say Weld could pull ahead. "He has proved to be masterful in winning undecided voters to his side," says Mr. Watanabe. "He's remarkable in his ability to woo last-minute voters."