WHEN the presidential contenders squared off for their second debate last night, they appeared before a group of undecided voters who represent the candidates' biggest challenge in the coming three weeks: to solidify their own soft bases and win over the doubtful supporters of their opponents.
Donald Kellermann, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, says that while polls show roughly 10 percent of voters are undecided, a much larger percentage are soft voters - "people who express the view that they could change their mind."
Pointing to his latest data, Mr. Kellermann says that "Bush's support is much more vulnerable than Clinton's." Only 14 percent of incumbent President Bush's supporters are strongly committed, compared with the 23 percent of Democratic challenger Gov. Bill Clinton's backers who are firm. After accounting for another level of "moderately committed" Bush and Clinton voters, Kellermann says almost two-thirds of Mr. Bush's support and slightly over half of Clinton's is "very soft."
What are the chances of Bush absorbing some of Clinton's weak voter base?
Not good, says Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who served briefly as an adviser to independent candidate Ross Perot. "I don't think people are oversold on Bill Clinton. People still have questions about him, but no one has any questions about George Bush." Mr. Rollins puts the odds for a Clinton victory at 8 to 1. But top Republican pollster Vince Breglio counters that Rollins is "overly pessimistic." Breglio says "there is still a great deal of flex in this electorate."
With as many as 45 percent of voters polled adamantly opposed to voting for Bush "under any circumstances," (compared with 32 percent who reject Clinton on the same basis) Kellermann says, Bush must scramble to draw what he can from Clinton. Almost two-thirds of voters, Kellerman says, will not vote for Mr. Perot.
"Only a large-scale, dramatic shift in the public's view" could eliminate "Clinton's substantial edge," Kellermann says. "Then the soft voters will be the decisive factor in the election."
Bush is pushing hard to convince the electorate that Clinton lacks the integrity, the character, and the leadership capacity to sit in the Oval Office. The GOP attacks on Clinton have had only a marginal impact thus far, says Kellermann, who has monitored the strength of support for both candidates. Seventeen polls done over time suggest that instead of dislodged, voters seem to be more entrenched, he says.
Mr. Breglio cautions against underestimating the impact of negative campaigning. If the Clinton trust issue "nags at the soft Clinton vote," Breglio says, that could be enough to pull Bush nearly even with Clinton.
Political analyst William Schneider helps orchestrate and assess the debate-oriented CNN/ USA Today/Gallup poll. "There is really one certainty: only a third of the voters want to see Bush reelected. Two-thirds don't want Bush."
Generally, he says, debates solidify support for candidates. He recalls Kennedy's election in 1960 and Reagan's election in 1980. Voters were uncertain about both. In both, Schneider says, the debates confirmed the support of large groups of undecided voters.
This year, 75 percent of voters decided before the debates; only 15 percent were wavering.
But some wavering voters sided with Perot after his straight-talking performance during the first debate. "In the end, they'll come back," Mr. Schneider says, adding that the poor showing in the vice-presidential debates by Perot's running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, has already set that return in motion.
Schneider's latest survey of registered American voters shows that less than 10 percent "don't have the foggiest idea" about whom to vote for in November's presidential elections. "A lot of them are people who won't vote. They're a bit out of it politically. They're younger, poorer, less well-educated," and mostly white, Asian, and Hispanic, he says.
Undecided voters are no longer a major factor says Schneider. They were, he says, but with 19 days left, most voters are committed and even the soft support is jelling. "History has shown that the undecided voter generally "goes with who is winning anyway. Even if all of them glommed onto Bush, their votes are not enough to save him."
Conservative British politician James Elles sees similarities between the US election and Britain's general elections held last April. Leading up to the day when the public cast its vote, many political analysts predicted that Prime Minister John Major, a Conservative, would be ousted by Labour Party candidate Neil Kinnock. Although British voters expressed a desire for change before the general elections, "when they went to the polls, they voted for the leader they knew. They didn't vote for change."
Schneider reflects on the comparison: "Bush is going to do exactly what John Major did. He'll get 42 percent of the vote, just like Major. The only difference is, Major won. Bush will not. Major won the election with a plurality, and only because of a divided opposition." Schneider expects Clinton to win "a little over 50 percent of the vote."