Bob Dole is banking on a pool of undecided voters, which he hopes is large enough to turn the election in his favor in the final three weeks.
It's not an unrealistic notion. By some accounts, as much as 40 percent of the electorate waited until late October to make up its mind in 1992. But several factors make this year different from preceding elections and frustrate Mr. Dole's attempt to change his status as a long shot.
The size of the undecided bloc and who forms it is disputable. The way voters view incumbency has changed. General disinterest is high. And economic conditions that favor President Clinton are forcing Dole to campaign on contradictory themes of optimism and pessimism.
For Dole to mount an upset, pollsters and political analysts say, he will need to aggressively pursue a group of diverse and ambivalent voters who are waiting to hear different and at times conflicting messages.
"The dynamics of the race still could shift," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "If voters are still undecided, it means they are not predisposed to vote for the president. But Dole needs something dramatic to shake up the race."
The core of voters who remain undecided is probably small - from 5 to 12 percent. These are mostly suburban women and blue- and white-collar middle class men. From there, the circle widens and muddies with voters known as "persuadables." These are moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, former Perot voters, and independents who indicate a willingness to change their leanings.
This wider bloc can be substantial. In Colorado, a state with more registered Republicans than Democrats, 53 percent of the electorate is either without party affiliation or backed Ross Perot four years ago, according to Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. Similar scenarios exist in counties and congressional districts across the US, including key Midwestern battleground states such as Ohio.
Dole should hold a natural advantage in those areas, especially with Mr. Perot's diminished status, but Mr. Clinton still has a comfortable edge.
One reason Dole isn't attracting more "persuadables" is the skepticism they have about his economic message. Dole appealed to middle-class anxieties about economic security in the Oct. 6 debate, and his running mate Jack Kemp will drum the same themes in tonight's face-off with Al Gore.
But these voters, particularly men and Perot supporters, seem unswayed by Dole's tax relief promises. "This independent bloc is not yearning for a tax cut," Mr. Ciruli says. "They focus more on deficit reduction."
There is some evidence that Dole is cutting modestly into the women's vote. Suburban mothers seem receptive to Dole's antidrug themes. Even so, for Dole to gain significant support from this group, he will have to counter the negative perception many women have about the GOP Congress's attempts to trim social and education programs.
That perception hints at another trend that may be hurting Dole. The elections of 1990 and 1992 were marked by record incumbent losses, as voters punished politicians for corrupt or unresponsive governance. Such punitive voting may be becoming more sophisticated, as voters have become more aware of which party controls Congress.
In 1994, they tossed out Democrats. This year, the Clinton campaign has effectively maintained public awareness of Dole's ties to unpopular GOP congressional leaders.
"My sense is that there is less anti-incumbency, per se," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It is now directed toward those - Republicans in particular - who shut down the government and attacked the environment. Increasingly, people know who is in power in Congress."
The ultimate reason Dole may not see an 11th-hour bounce, even with a large enough undecided bloc to tilt the election, is apathy. After a relatively high turnout in the 1992 presidential election, several analysts expect this year to rival 1988 for record low participation. A new survey by the Markle Presidential Election Watch found a drop of at least 10 percent in voter interest across the political spectrum.
Greg Markus, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, blames both candidates for public apathy, but notes the consequences are higher for Dole. "I wouldn't be surprised to find the number of undecideds to be relatively high ... through the election," he says. "Those voters look for a campaign that communicates why this contest is important. That hasn't happened."