ST. LOUIS — As the 2000 campaign rolls into its final days, the three presidential debates may have left these images of the candidates in the public's mind: George W. Bush is a genial conciliator, and Al Gore is the fighting master of facts.
These personas - the uniter and the peppery populist, Reagan and Truman, Tom Hanks and Tommy Lee Jones - are the way the men themselves have striven to be perceived. Both made it through debate season without a gaffe that would have damaged their chosen image.
But polls show undecided voters have yet to be swayed en masse by either persona. That means the tightest presidential race in a generation will come down to three weeks of trench warfare, a slog where the basic weapons of politics, such as turnout, handshakes, and well-timed ad buys, may be decisive.
The crucial undecideds are "still looking for that moment where they say, 'OK, he just won my heart,' " says Nancy Snow, a political scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Of the two candidates, the debates arguably proved more important to Governor Bush than to Vice President Gore.
He entered debate season needing to dissipate public doubt about his intellectual ability and competence for the job. In three encounters he demonstrated a credible grasp on major issues and managed to avoid making such a major gaffe as mangling "Greeks" into "Grecians" or "tariff barriers" into "terrier barriers."
Furthermore, Bush made good use of the debate stage to articulate a broad theme that encompasses his entire approach to issues. In Tuesday's debate, his smaller-is-better government philosophy yielded the constant refrain: "I trust people. I don't trust the federal government."
Indeed, "Bush is a repeater," says Professor Snow. "He constantly gets back to his core ideas, but Gore has waves and waves of detail."
In the first debate, Gore's mastery of detail produced a blizzard of numbers that may have served to confuse as much as enlighten. By Tuesday's third appearance, however, the vice president seemed to strike a balance.
Gore was providing vision as well, with such as statements as, "I see a day in the United States of America where all our public schools are considered excellent."
Yet he rarely missed an opportunity to hammer home his chosen persona with his populist mantra, "I will fight for you."
Now the final push begins. Both candidates will draw on their most precious resource: big bucks.
The candidates, the parties, and independent groups could spend as much as $200 million on TV ads before the race ends, focusing on Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Currently, the Republican Party has about twice as much so-called soft money as Democrats.
In a two-week period ending Oct. 8, the Republican Party spent about $3.2 million on TV ads, while the Democrats spent just $1.3 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
But Democrats were greatly aided by spending from independent groups, such as Planned Parenthood, Handgun Control Inc., and the AFL-CIO. Together such organizations spent about $2.3 million in that two-week period, which brought the two parties into rough parity.
Moreover, Democrats have long had a grass-roots advantage, relying on labor unions and other on-the-ground groups to get out the vote.
One key asset Gore has been loath to use so far, though, is President Clinton. Not once did the vice president utter his boss's name in Tuesday's debate, a fact that struck some analysts as strange.
"Bill Clinton is almost a phantom president here," says James Campbell, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "It's bizarre how absent he was from the discussion."
It's still unclear what role Mr. Clinton will play in the final 20 days of the race. If anything, he'll probably go out to rally strong Democratic constituencies, such as African-Americans.
Ultimately, perhaps, Gore's reticence to invoke Clinton bespeaks the precarious nature of this race. Neither man wants to do anything that would tip the contest toward the other.
As Bush strategist Tucker Eskew puts it: "We've got to execute our plan perfectly. We can't make any mistakes - on any press releases, on any flyers, on anything. There's just very little margin for error."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society