It's Tuesday night on Main Street in Emmaus, Pa., and a small crowd at Armetta's pizzeria is forgoing the usual weeknight sports to watch George W. Bush and Al Gore tussle live in their first presidential debate.
Gazing at four big, corner TV screens as they snack on sodas and Strombolis, many in this group of mainly undecided voters are seeing the candidates unfiltered for the first time - and hope the debate will help them make up their minds.
But when the candidates shake hands after the 90-minute session, the grip of indecision appears only to have tightened in Emmaus, a swing community in one of this election's pivotal states. Mr. Gore, the Democrat, held a sizable Keystone State lead heading into the debate, but Mr. Bush led in July, and opinion clearly remains fluid.
"Things are cloudier now," says Jo Sadrovitz, a Democrat and lifelong Emmaus resident. "I need more debates."
Sitting in the next booth, Howard Lieberman, a registered Republican and expert in corporate training, agrees. "I couldn't make a decision based on that debate," he says.
With no clear winner in the debate, the race appears open in this quiet borough of 11,300 people in the heart of Lehigh County, a swing region that has proven a strong bellwether in presidential races for the past three decades.
Yet the candidates' first combative encounter did shape opinions here in important, sometimes unexpected, ways.
In general, the dozen-odd viewers at Armetta's tended to pay less attention to the candidates' painstakingly detailed policy statements. Instead, they zeroed in on body language and mannerisms, presence and style, that spoke to them about Bush and Gore as men and potential chief executives.
Take Sadrovitz and her husband, Frank, representatives of Emmaus's old, blue-collar, and predominantly Democratic population. Descendants mainly of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and other European immigrants, they are hard-working, proud, and wary of changes brought by a shifting economy and influx of "newcomers" to the Lehigh Valley.
"Show me what you've done and what you're made of," says Jo, who sizes up all politicians with the yardstick of her own upbringing as one of nine siblings on a hardscrabble, 30-acre Emmaus farm. She later held factory jobs, making pajamas for the US Army and toasters for General Electric. Frank oversaw brick workers at Bethlehem Steel in nearby Bethlehem, Pa.
"I take Bush to come from easy living" in contrast to Gore, whose "roots are poor," Jo says, offering slices of homemade fruitcake in her tidy home on North Fourth Street before the debate.
Yet while Jo leaned toward Gore going into the debate, she had a change of heart after watching him interact with Bush on stage. "[Gore's] actions, breaking in and trying to be the top banana, that made me down on him," she says. In contrast, "some people always see Bush as an oil man from a wealthy, big-oil family, but when Gore put him down, I felt sorry for him."
Indeed, irritation over what they called Gore's rigid, aggressive debating style, repetitiveness, and audible sighing is widespread among the Armetta's crowd, including Gore supporters.
"He didn't appear spontaneous," says Bev Freeman, a Democrat who runs a consignment shop in town. She grew so annoyed at Gore's numerous references to a Bush tax cut "for the wealthiest 1 percent" that during the debate she started finishing his phrases for him.
"Gore looks like a used-car salesman," adds Kevin Mount, a student from nearby Allentown College. Five of six classmates with him switched from undecided to leaning toward Bush after the debate.
Still, others in the crowd, including some registered Republicans, say they were less than impressed by Bush's lack of polish. "Bush still doesn't know how to talk before a crowd," says Teri Fisher, a registered Republican and president of Junior Achievement of Lehigh Valley Inc.
"Bush seemed unprepared," says Mr. Lieberman, also a Republican who had been leaning for Bush. Like others at Armetta's, he voices a strong distaste for "mudslinging" in presidential politics. He cringed when Bush took an occasional swipe at Gore's character.
Lieberman and his wife, Alice, originally from New York State, are among thousands who have flocked to this area from other states in recent decades. Many of them have taken white-collar, high-tech, and service jobs that emerged even as manufacturing jobs fell sharply, with the closure of factories such as the pajama plant and Bethlehem Steel. The newcomers tend to live in suburbs and vote Republican, giving rise to political tensions with the older, Democratic urban cores.
Of the debated issues, the ones that seemed to strike the biggest chord here were education and Social Security.
Emmaus, like Pennsylvania as a whole, has an older-than-average population, nearly one-fifth over 65. As a result, residents such as the Sadrovitzes listened intently to the competing plans for salvaging Social Security. They worry about Bush's proposal to let workers invest some funds in private accounts. "Supposing we have a 1929 crash?" says Frank, who recalls scavenging for coal along the railroad tracks as a child during the Great Depression.
On education, however, Bush appealed most to the Emmaus crowd, with his emphasis on strict testing and accountability.
"Too many kids are just getting passed along, without being held back like we were," says Jo, an eighth-grade graduate. "When we saw a teacher, we listened."
Mrs. Lieberman, a college media manager, nods. "We're a society more concerned about individual rights than group rights. We have to fix the system."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society