Ask just about any American voter what kind of person they'd like to see as president and they're likely to give a from-the-gut response that has a lot to do with personal qualities.
"We need someone with integrity - someone who gives us a reason to believe in the country," says Michael Constantinou, a New York stock analyst.
"I look for someone who's got a vision for the nation - and strong moral character," says Joel Westra, a University of Chicago graduate student.
"We've got to have a person who can build bridges - who sees the need for bipartisanship," adds Emily Hall, a mutual-fund tracker in Chicago.
Integrity. Vision. The ability to unify people. It's these fuzzier qualities - leadership qualities - that are often just as important to voters as a candidate's stance on concrete issues like abortion or education. Already some facets of leadership - "experience" and "integrity" - are dominating this year's campaign. And the topic is likely to continue as a major theme.
Between now and voting day, "there will be four or five defining moments where Americans will form a fundamental perception about the candidates' leadership abilities," says David Iannelli, a Republican pollster. Those moments, he says, will tip the balance toward one or the other.
The outlines of voters' perceptions of the leadership qualities of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush are already clear. But much could change before the fall.
On character and integrity, it appears that the public doesn't see either man as more virtuous - perhaps a surprise to Mr. Bush, who vows to restore honor to the White House. He lambastes Mr. Gore for his admitted 1996 fund-raising mistakes, while Gore targets Bush's harsh campaign ads against then-rival Sen. John McCain, including their questionable funding sources.
Indeed, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that on "character and being trustworthy," 37 percent of voters preferred Gore, while 35 percent chose Bush.
Mr. Constantinou, the Wall Street analyst and a former McCain supporter, puts it this way: "Bush has integrity, I guess, but I wouldn't stack it up that high."
But perhaps one area in which Bush has an edge is his reputed ability to unify people. Mr. Westra is a Republican-leaning voter who used to live in Texas. He saw Bush orchestrate a compromise on parental notification for girls who wanted abortions - thus reducing the number of abortions in the state. Westra admires Bush's "ability to take an idea and find a way to get it passed in a way that works for both sides."
That's key, agrees Ms. Hall, who leans Democratic. She hopes the next president will work with the other party. "I see it as different than capitulating - or caving in - to the other side," she says. "It's the ability to find common ground."
For these voters anyway, Bush's experience as a unifying force in Texas shows promise. But Washington could be different, warns Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington: "The egos are bigger in the US Congress - and ideologically, the Democrats here are much more liberal than in Texas."
On this issue of unifying people, some think Gore is less worthy. "He's a more polarizing figure than Bush," says Richard Norton Smith, head of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. "He has defined himself as a leader who will fight for specific issues - and specific groups," Mr. Smith notes, "while Bush brings people together and finds a common ground."
In another key area of leadership - flexibility and responding to changing needs - Gore has shown agility, although he also risks being seen as desperate to get votes.
When Senator McCain suspended his campaign, for instance, he left a big chunk of voters up for grabs. Bush and Gore had dramatically different reactions. Gore leapt toward these voters, wrapping himself in the banner of campaign-finance reform. Bush, so far, has largely cold-shouldered them, sticking to his guns on such reforms.
But Bush's approach scored points with Westra: It showed "a commitment to his ideas" - unlike Gore, "he wouldn't change his views just for convenience." And Gore's about-face has risks. "Gore as reformer? That's laughable," says Constantinou.
Finally, there's Gore's leadership trump card: experience. If Bush is elected, he will come to the White House with one of the shortest public-service records of any president in the past 100 years. (Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover had comparably short public-service stints.)
Gore, meanwhile, was a longtime senator, and has been one of the most-involved vice presidents ever. In the NBC poll, 47 percent of voters said Gore has a superior "ability to do the job," while 30 percent said Bush does. Even 21 percent of Republicans gave Gore the edge.
"Experience" has become a code word, explains Smith. "It means smarts, savvy, judgment, and having been tested."
To counter Gore on this point, he says, Bush must prove two things: that "there's good experience and there's bad experience" - that Gore has learned wily ways working with President Clinton; and that he's "skillful" and "assertive" enough to set the terms of debate for the campaign.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society