More than most presidential campaigns, this year's race is shaping up to be a "Battle for the Bulge" - a fight for that ever-larger mid-section of American politics: independent voters.
These party-dissing legions have long been a muscular "third force" in politics, but this year - thanks mostly to the supernova candidacy of Sen. John McCain - they're more numerous and more passionate than ever.
With presumed nominees Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush appealing almost exclusively to their own party's voters - and so far attracting few others - independents are key to tipping the balance, especially in several Midwest states.
And this has a big implication for the race: Many of these independents see the likely nominees as near carbon copies of each other, two scions cut from the same establishment cloth. On character, biography, and personality, many independents see few differences. This leaves things like policy issues and vice-presidential picks as the major areas in which the two men can try to distinguish themselves.
"The independent vote is totally up for grabs - and unlike in previous years, there's some real excitement there," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll.
Furthermore, because of independents' skepticism about the characters of the two men, the race is "going to be all about issues," he says, adding that "whether it will be done through real policy debates or divisive attack ads remains to be seen."
Take retired insurance adjuster Ed Sikora and his wife, Larraine, of suburban Cleveland.
Not happy with their choices
Both longtime independents, they voted for Mr. McCain in last week's Ohio primary. Ever since McCain suspended his candidacy, they've been debating which of the two surviving candidates to go for. It's not an easy choice.
"Right now you could put two names in a bag and shake 'em up and vote for whoever falls out," says Mr. Sikora. Or, as Mrs. Sikora puts it, laughing as she quotes a line she heard recently: "If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates."
The major trouble, says her husband, is that both men have ethical blots on their records. He refers to Bush's rumored - but unproven - cocaine use and Gore's admitted fund-raising faux pas in the 1996 campaign. "You've got shifty one way and shifty the other way," he says.
But both say they plan to overcome their cynicism and vote for one or the other. In the end, they say, it will come down to issues and vice-presidential picks.
"I'd like to see them talk about welfare and gun control and Social Security," says Mr. Sikora.
And if they had to pick today? A split decision: Mr. Sikora would choose Bush, and his wife would take Gore.
Indeed, pollsters say independents are hardly monolithic, which makes wooing them especially hard. Typically, a majority of them are women - and about one-quarter are senior citizens.
And this year, in some states, there are more than ever. New Jersey is a key swing state with an apparently growing independent or undecided vote.
In April of 1992, just 8 percent of the state's voters were undecided between the three main presidential candidates. In June of 1996, 11 percent were undecided. But this year, fully 25 percent of New Jersey voters are undecided, says Rutgers University pollster Cliff Zukin.
Many people who supported McCain and former Sen. Bill Bradley haven't begun backing either of the standard-bearers, he says. "It's a very scrambled electorate.... There's a hefty middle that's bigger than usual."
Furthermore, when independents or undecideds see the two candidates go after each other on character, observers say, they conclude that the entire establishment is sullied.
"They say, 'A pox on both your houses,' " says Joan Hoff, a historian at Ohio University in Athens.
Indeed, evidence from neighboring Pennsylvania shows this to be the case.
Both candidates have "unusually high unfavorable ratings," says Berwood Yost, a pollster at Millersville University.
Some 35 percent of the state's voters have an unfavorable impression of Gore, while just 30 percent have a favorable view. For Bush, 38 percent are unfavorable, 32 percent favorable.
All this hints that in order to woo these unanchored voters, it's important to highlight policy differences, says Professor Hoff, especially because at the moment, it appears to many of them that "neither party stands for anything - and they both stand for the same thing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society