Heartland to set tone in contest

Presidential election will be won or lost in the Midwest, driving character to the fore.

Call it The Battle for the Heartland.

The 2000 presidential contest is all but sure to be won or lost in the nation's midsection - in states like Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

It's a fact driven by how evenly split the rest of the nation is between the two major-party candidates. And given the unique values-and-character approach of many heartland voters, it's likely to nudge the focus of the campaign toward issues of trust and honesty.

"We'll be there at least two times a week every week until the election," says Chris Lehane, Vice President Al Gore's spokesman. "This is where elections are won and lost."

Both presumed nominees - Mr. Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush - are planning old-style post-convention trips through the Midwest. Gore will be on a boat in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Mr. Bush will take a Harry Truman-like

whistle-stop train tour.

On these trips, the candidates will meet a different kind of voter, says pollster Dick Bennett. "On the East and West Coast, people are more performance driven." Voters say, " 'It doesn't matter what you do on your own time, as long as you perform well.' "

But in the Midwest, "It's more, 'You may be brilliant, but if I think you're a bad person, I may not vote for you.' "

Both campaigns have long known the Midwest would be crucial. It often is. Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, for instance, have gone with the winner in 10 of the past 11 elections.

But this year's race has made the region especially important. Gore is doing well on the East and West Coasts. Bush is faring strongly in the South and Rocky Mountain West. That leaves Midwestern states as the battlegrounds - or swing states.

A different campaign style

And campaigning here requires a different style. This is a region where many people still say hello on the sidewalk - and mean it - and where saying grace is common at the dinner table.

It's a region where outsiders and newcomers aren't so common. A total of 92,635 new immigrants to the US settled in Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan in 1996, for instance. California alone had 201,529 new immigrants. New York had 154,095.

It's also a region where moral issues are more at the forefront. Take abortion. The average rate in 1996 for Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan was 17.7 abortions per 1,000 women. California's was 33.4. New York's was 42.8.

Both Bush and Gore have been campaigning hard in the region. This week Bush was in Illinois and Wisconsin. Gore was in Missouri and Iowa.

Last week, Gore was in Wisconsin and then Saginaw for a three-hour question-and-answer session with about 200 mostly undecided voters. His folksy, family-oriented style during the talk reflected the demands of Midwestern campaigning.

After telling the audience - which was perched on bleachers and folding chairs in a sweltering high school gym - that he's a new grandfather, he asked, "How many grandparents do we have here?" And, "How many grandkids do you have? 5? 10? 15?"

This kind of approach is needed in the Midwest, says Mr. Bennett, where "Voters tend to look on the personal side."

Indeed, in Michigan, voters' perception of Gore has been that he's "weak on who he is and what he stands for - weak on character," says pollster Ed Sarpolus. "People don't want to wake up one day and say, 'We've got a great economy, but why did he have to go and do that?' "

And if "Clinton fatigue" has an effect anywhere, it's here. Many still feel they should punish the "son" for the sins of the "father." Mr. Sarpolus's most-recent poll shows Bush ahead of Gore, 46 to 34 percent. Polls around the region show similar Bush-over-Gore results - although Gore has gained some ground recently.

His talk in Saginaw was a success. "I liked him," says once-skeptical Jeff Denome, a union member who says "trust" is key to his vote. "He seemed genuine."

Folksiness could backfire

While the Midwestern climate might seem to favor a folksy Republican like Bush, he faces trouble here, too.

"If he can keep the campaign on the pat-you-on-the-back-and-give-you-a-nickname level, he'll do well," says pollster Bennett. But Midwesterners are famously skeptical, "and I think they're going to want more." The danger for Bush is that "when you try to go below the surface, there isn't anything there."

In Oakland County, in suburban Detroit, retired supermarket manager Al Slonim casts a doubting eye on Bush. "He hasn't shown me anything he's done as governor. What's his track record?" he says.

Although in the end, Mr. Slonim says, much of his vote comes back to character. "If one of them would just get honest, then he'd have my vote."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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