Bush regroups as Gore sustains 'bounce'

With polls showing the two men in a dead heat, how each conducts his campaign will be crucial.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since the beginning of Campaign 2000, pollsters have been predicting a close presidential race, and that is indeed where the contest now stands. Most major polls show the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush either in a dead heat or with a slight Gore advantage.

And now that Labor Day has come and gone - the point at which polls start to have real meaning - election-watchers are increasingly confident in saying that this could be either man's race.

"The demise of Gore was predicted too early, and I think the demise of Bush has been predicted too early, too," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducts the regular Battleground poll with a Republican pollster.

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Unlike in many years, when external factors such as the economy or a war can effectively end a presidential bid before it begins, this year's race could indeed hinge on how each man conducts his campaign.

Texas Governor Bush, the Republican nominee, has faced alarm within his own party's ranks over the new dynamic in the race. Last week, any attempt by Bush at substantive messagemaking was swallowed up by the governor's off-color aside about a New York Times reporter and the debate over debates.

Now Bush is ready to settle the debates issue, a dispute that voters view as noise and has scored no points for Bush, and get on with his new campaign strategy of meeting more with voters.

He will highlight people who, he says, will prove his point that his plans for taxes, Social Security, prescription drugs, and education will do more to help ordinary folks than Vice President Gore's plans.

Bush is repeating a tactic that worked in the primaries: When Sen. John McCain posted a strong challenge to Bush by pitching himself as a reformer, Bush came back with a new slogan - "A Reformer with Results" - and put the McCain boom to rest.

Now Bush is answering Gore's populist approach with another new slogan - "Real Plans for Real People" - and with efforts to talk more directly to voters. He is planning an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and is considering going on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Gore will appear on both shows this week.

Political experts say Gore's populist line appears to have contributed to his post-convention bounce in the polls, in that it helped Gore shore up support among traditional Democratic constituencies, such as the labor movement and minorities.

"This may haunt Gore later in the race," as he tries to bring independent and "swing" voters to his side, says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio.

But for now, Gore has done what he had to do - and has been rewarded with the endorsements of the Teamsters Union, a key group that had threatened to withhold its support, and the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

With only eight weeks remaining until election day, the campaigns will be looking hard at particular voter blocs that are still on the fence or are soft in their support of one or the other candidate.

Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster, says independent women - that is, women who don't identify themselves with either major party - will be the No. 1 group to target, and that if Bush gains three to five points in the next couple of weeks, that's where those votes will be coming from.

"About 60 percent of the undecideds right now, or more, are noncollege-educated women," says Lake, speaking at a Monitor breakfast. "So those waitress moms are back in charge of the election."

Overall, the top factor in Gore's recent surge has been the reemergence of the gender gap.

For months, Bush was beating Gore among women, causing alarm among Democrats that they were losing their traditional advantage. But the gender gap is back with a vengeance - with some polls showing Gore beating Bush by upwards of 30 points, a gap that most experts view as unsustainable.

Lake attributes Gore's new success in wooing women to his focus on issues such as education, healthcare, and Social Security. But Lake worries that the latest voters Gore gets will be the first to leave him if Bush counters with an effective pitch - especially, she says, since Bush's "compassionate conservative" approach plays well with women.

Independent pollster John Zogby agrees that the independent women Gore now has in his camp could well swing to Bush - a sure source of concern to Gore, since the closeness of the race is now predicated on the huge gender gap.

And, he says, "it's somewhat close with Bush really not having his footing. At some point he probably will regain his footing, and then independent women who are really making the big difference right now may swing."

Working in Gore's favor is the finding that women are more risk-averse than men, and will therefore be cautious about throwing the Democrats out of the White House at a time of economic strength, says Lake.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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