Why presidential race is so tight so late

In an odd twist, the race isn't about any one thing but a plethora of smaller issues.

After all the millions of dollars, television ads, late-night strategy sessions, and throaty exhortations to screaming supporters, the 2000 presidential election - just 11 days away - remains as tight as any in modern times this late in the game.

Republican George W. Bush, who regained momentum during the presidential debates, can't quite put Democrat Al Gore away. Mr. Gore, who reinvented his image in the nick of time just two months ago, is once again pushing the proverbial rock up a hill.

The lead in nationwide polls has changed hands at least eight times in recent months. Fifteen to 17 states - many of them rich in electoral votes - show the race within the statistical margin of error. On Wednesday alone, both candidates campaigned in close states they thought would be sewn up long ago - Gore in his home state of Tennessee, and Bush here in Florida, where his brother is governor.

"Voters are conflicted over what it is they're looking for in their next president," says Brad Coker, president of the Maryland-based Mason-Dixon polling firm. "If they're inclined to vote on issues, they vote for Gore. If they go with character, trust, and likability, Bush polls better."

A significant chunk of voters in the middle are literally toggling back and forth between the two, a reflection that this election isn't really about any one thing, but rather a vast array of smaller issues. While Bush polls better on likability, fully half of the electorate has doubts the Texas governor is prepared to be president. For Gore, who has 24 years of elected experience in Washington under his belt, the doubts surface over his credibility.

In the larger picture, the tight presidential race reflects a nation that has reached a sort of political equilibrium. Voter identification is split nearly evenly between the two major parties. The Republicans control the House of Representatives by only a six-vote margin. Out of 435 seats, all of which are up for election on Nov. 7 only a handful are truly competitive. And while this week, Democrats' hopes of retaking the House are fading slightly, politics-watchers say it's too close to call.

For Gore, there's also the added challenge of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who is siphoning away votes in states he thought were his, such as Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington, and forcing him to battle on two fronts, the left and the right.

Even California, the biggest electoral prize and a must-win state for Gore, is moving toward the margin of error because of Mr. Nader. In the end, Nader could cost Gore the election.

Some Nader supporters have no sympathy for Gore's plight. If Gore loses, they say, he'll have only himself to blame. Indeed, if Gore does lose, he will have busted all the carefully constructed models by political scientists which, based largely on the economy, claim to predict presidential outcomes months in advance.

"These days people don't necessarily link the economy with federal policy," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California. "If we were just bouncing back from a recession, the economy might be on people's minds more than it is."

Bush has been fighting mightily to wrest the nation's strong economy away from Gore's "plus" column, arguing that it's the American people's entrepreneurial ingenuity that has created the largest peacetime economic expansion in history, not the government. It's a message that plays very well to the enthusiastic throngs of Republicans greeting him on the campaign trail.

But all one need do is look at Florida, the fourth most populous state, to see why the outcome on Nov. 7 remains in question. Bush has been coming here about once a week since Labor Day and spent the entire day Wednesday traversing the state's midsection on a bus.

The Bush campaign had assumed that the popularity of Florida's own Governor Bush, brother Jeb, would rub off onto George W. and allow it to concentrate resources on big toss-up states like Michigan and Ohio.

In fact, Floridians have shown their feistiness by making the Texas Bush prove himself all on his own.

And they are showing that the state really is close politically. Local analysts say that, regionally, it all boils down to Florida's Interstate-4 corridor, which traverses the Sunshine State's midsection from Daytona Beach to Tampa.

That part of the state has seen an influx of new independent voters, who are adopting a "show me" attitude about the two presidential candidates.

Bush and Gore are also locked in deep battle over Florida's sizable senior-citizen population, as seen in the fierce debate over healthcare.

The Democrats are placing automated calls featuring actor Ed Asner, who warns seniors that the Republican plan would hurt them.

The Republicans are fighting back with their own automated calls:

Bush's popular mother, Barbara, is the voice on automated calls telling seniors that her son's plan wouldn't reduce their benefits.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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