Taking political stock

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It seems a good moment to ask myself some questions and see if I have perceived, or learned, anything that may throw light on the complicated political scene.

Who's going to win that New York Senate race?

Once again, in the wake of the second presidential debate, I called that highly regarded pollster, John Zogby. He said his findings showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Rick Lazio by four points, 44 to 40. He added that Mr. Lazio could still win if he campaigns vigorously upstate from now until the election. "Lazio is only seven percentage points ahead of Clinton upstate," he told me, "and he has the potential to do much better there."

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Joseph Lieberman's addition to the presidential ticket has been of great help to Mrs. Clinton, according to Zogby. He points out that no New York statewide Democratic candidate has ever won without Jewish backing in the 70 percentiles. He says that Mrs. Clinton - once down in the mid-40s in percentages among Jewish voters - now is up in the 70s with that group of voters.

Zogby's summation: "Mrs. Clinton is in a good position to win, but not to walk to a victory. Lazio still has a chance."

How goes the presidential race?

On the weekend before the last debate several polls, (Gallup, The Washington Post, among others) showed George W. Bush ahead by three percentage points. Indeed, this upward surge of Mr. Bush was reflected in big headlines and much attention on TV programs. My reading of Al Gore in the debate was of a candidate who was tiptoeing very carefully because he knew that the race was tilting toward Bush and he would have to be exceedingly careful not to do or say anything that would push that tilt into a trend.

Zogby, too, recorded that rise for Bush but, on the day of the debate, found the contest returning to a deadlock, 43 to 43. On the tightness of the race he said: "I don't think the debate changed anything."

Have there been any recent gains by Bush in closely contested battleground states?

Another top pollster who keeps a close eye on these states, Mark Mellman, was in for a Monitor breakfast the other day. And he told us that he saw no signs that these gains for Bush being reported by many pollsters were being reflected at the state level. His view was that the contest had been and still remains nip and tuck "and exceedingly volatile."

Is it possible that this is the presidential race when we'll have one candidate winning the popular vote and the other picking up the electoral-vote (counted state by state) victory?

Mr. Mellman thought not - but he said that this was one time when it could happen. Even then, he sees the popular winner being declared the victor. "The American people would be terribly upset," he said, "if the electoral winner became the president over the one chosen by the nation's voters as a whole." "Something would happen," he said, "so the popular winner would become president: Maybe some of the electors would decide to change their votes to bring that about."

As a long-time observer of presidential elections, what is the most surprising thing to me about this contest?

That it is so close. The continuing prosperity of this country that was presided over by the Clinton-Gore administration should have been enough to give Mr. Gore a decided edge. Indeed, with that exceedingly strong economic wind at his back the vice president should have been well out in front - all of the way.

Indeed, I think another Democrat - perhaps Bill Bradley or just a fresh face taken from Democratic congressional leaders or from among the governors - would have benefited from the economy.

I thought Gore would be a good candidate. He's smart enough, experienced enough. But he's proved to be an unlikable candidate with lots of voters, including many Democrats. And his good deportment in this last debate didn't wipe out this negative impression. Gore has the economy. Bush is more likable. If Gore wins, it may well be by the skin of his teeth. But this Bush likability may triumph over the economy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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