WASHINGTON — Ralph Nader calls them "drab vs. dreary." Pat Buchanan calls their two parties Xerox copies of one another.
And among the voters themselves, only a little more than half see any difference in the issue positions of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.
In fact, the public thinks the two major-party candidates are more similar now than they were a year ago, before they really had begun to campaign, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
But even as Governor Bush has visibly tried to push the Republican Party toward the center, creating a sense that he and Mr. Gore, a centrist Democrat, are crowding around the political 50-yard line, there remain nuanced but significant differences between the two men's approach to governing.
At heart, Gore is more likely to look to government first to solve problems, while Bush tilts toward a laissez-faire Texas approach. Bush is more willing to rely on individual and state
The question that both candidates are addressing is just what the role of government should be in the emerging global, high-tech era, with budget surpluses forecast for years to come.
The same, yet different
In comparisons of issues most important to voters, the two candidates' positions are at once similar and different:
*Education. Gone are the days when Republicans openly called for the elimination of the federal Department of Education. Now, both presidential candidates see federal funds, a small proportion of the total money spent on public education in the United States, as a lever for change.
Gore would spend about 10 times as much money on education as Bush would, and his plan includes support for creation of "universal preschool" through grants to states. He also aims to boost the quality of teaching through testing, bonuses, and reduced class size. Gore opposes vouchers, or public funds that can be used for private schooling.
Bush supports the use of vouchers as one mechanism to force failing public schools to improve. Bush also would offer states a choice of how they receive their funds: One plan would consolidate federal aid to schools into five categories, and states would have to reach certain benchmarks to maintain their funds. The other option would give federal funds to states in one lump sum, or block grant, and allow for greater freedom from regulation.
*Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Gore supports expansion of these federal entitlement programs, while Bush calls for a more wholesale change that would allow for greater individual choice. Under Social Security, Bush favors creation of privatized personal retirement accounts, while Gore prefers to use general revenues to make up for the system's projected shortfall.
In Medicare, Gore would add a prescription-drug benefit - a very costly undertaking - while Bush supports medical savings accounts for senior citizens and an increase in the choice of health plans for seniors, including some that would cover prescriptions. Bush would also provide subsidies to low-income seniors who cannot afford drug benefits.
*Taxes. Both candidates want to cut taxes, but the magnitude and approach are starkly different. Bush has called for tax reductions of more than $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years, while Gore's cuts amount to $500 billion. Bush would reduce the tax rates of all brackets, while Gore's are more targeted to lower-income workers.
The hot-button social issues that divide the two parties - such as abortion, affirmative action, and church-state separation - are now largely being legislated at the state level and ruled on by the Supreme Court.
Gore has sought to make the future composition of the Supreme Court an issue in this campaign, in the wake of close rulings on these matters, but analysts say this is too fine a point for most voters.
Issues vs. personality
More important to the outcome of the campaign will be whether voters look to the candidates' stands on issues or personalities and leadership qualities as their top criterion.
Gore is very specific in his policies and, in polls, he beats Bush on many of the most important issues, such as education and healthcare.
Bush, in contrast, speaks more vaguely about his plans, aiming instead to appeal to voters on the basis of his character and his leadership experience as governor of Texas. For now, Bush is beating Gore in those areas.
"The issue domain is more favorable to the Democratic Party," says Tom Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
"Bush figures his strongest suit is Americans' weariness with the soap operas in the White House. And if he can persuade them that he can keep this prosperity going but make the political process a little more dignified, then he's got a shot at winning."
Gore's weakness for now is that polls show his support is softer than Bush's; presumably, therefore, he's more at risk of losing some of his voters to any of the remaining candidates, especially if those voters feel strongly about the issues being pushed by Mr. Nader, Mr. Buchanan, or the others.
Nader and Buchanan, though in many ways at opposite ends of the political spectrum, sound virtually identical when they speak about the global economy and reform of the political system. That populist message, some analysts say, could appeal more to Gore voters than Bush voters.
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