Four weeks before Election Day, Al Gore and George W. Bush are locked in the closest race for the White House in more than 20 years.
A new nationwide poll over the Columbus Day weekend found the two candidates struggling to make gains with middle-income voters, whose role in this election has become pivotal.
The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll gave Vice President Gore 43 percent and Governor Bush 42 percent. Third-party candidates got much smaller support, but they showed significant strength in the West.
Among the poll's major findings:
&#8226;Bush leads narrowly in the South, West, and Midwest, while Gore is ahead by a wide margin margin in the Northeast.
&#8226;Some 10 percent of likely voters are still undecided - a factor that could spell trouble for Gore.
&#8226;Gore maintains a solid six percentage-point lead among women, but he trails Bush by five points among men.
&#8226;Last week's presidential debate helped neither candidate. Both lost support afterwards, primarily to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
&#8226;Dick Cheney's performance in the vice-presidential debate last Thursday helped solidify Bush's support. Forty-six percent of likely voters said the VP debate made it more probable they would vote for Bush, while 31 percent said it was less likely.
By a 39 to 37 margin, they said the VP debate made it less likely they would vote for Gore.
The survey, conducted for the Monitor by TIPP, a unit of Technometrica Market Intelligence, found that in the Northeast, a traditional Democratic stronghold, the vice president holds his largest lead - 47 percent to 37 percent - over the Texas governor.
The South - home base for both candidates - remains Bush's strongest region, where he is currently ahead 45 percent to Gore's 42 percent. And the Midwest is extremely close, with Bush ahead 43 to 42.
It is the West that is most intriguing. Bush leads there by a 41 percent to 39 percent margin, but third party candidates, led by Mr. Nader, rack up 11 percent of the vote, more than in any other region. The race is so close in every region except the Northeast that it falls within the poll's margin of error.
Nationwide, Nader garners only 3 percent support, with Libertarian Party nominee Harry Browne at 1 percent, and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan at 0.5 percent. But in the West, the combination of these three candidates could be instrumental in deciding the election.
Among the 800 people interviewed for the Monitor/TIPP poll was "Jeff," a physician at a community health center in Sonoma County in California. Voters like Jeff are a concern for the Gore campaign in the West.
Prior to the first presidential debate, the doctor says he was torn between Gore and Nader. But now Gore has lost ground with him.
"When [Gore] and Bush were debating, it felt like they were made from the same mold," Jeff says.
"I honestly don't think there is going to be a whole lot of difference between a Gore president and a Bush president."
So Jeff is going with Nader.
Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, says that overall, about 3 percent of those voters who watched the debate switched their support to a third-party candidate.
Though a majority of voters did not change sides because of the first debate, many independent and undecided voters were particularly unimpressed by what they saw.
Kristi Smith, a travel agent in Ridgeland, Miss., observed that neither of the two candidates wowed her. She says: "When I was watching the debate, I wanted to know: 'Is this it? Where's No. 3?' "
While Ms. Smith probably will vote for Bush, the main reason is that she finds Gore unappealing. "I don't like his personality, and I think he talks in circles and doesn't really answer the questions he's asked," she says.
But Kelvin VanArsdale, a community college student in Louisiana, found Gore more convincing - particularly in his stance toward the poor. "Gore seems to be trying to spread the wealth around a little more," he says.
As the campaigns rush toward the finish line, both Gore and Bush now are focused on the large group of undecided voters.
The challenge is particularly acute for Gore, says pollster Mayur. Typically, an incumbent like Gore has high name recognition. People already know him. If they don't support him by now, it could indicate problems for Gore on Election Day.
As a group, the undecided voters are generally people of modest means (family income, $40,000 a year), mostly over 45 years old, with either a high school education or a couple years of college.
They consider themselves to be political moderates, and a majority of them (54 percent) are women. Nearly 60 percent of them are married - a factor that could help Bush, since married people are more likely to vote Republican.
Many voters, like Terry Curry, a critical-care nurse in San Diego, are going through a mental wrestling match as they compare the candidates. Mr. Curry watched only the latter half of the first presidential debate and says: "To be honest, I was a little disappointed in both candidates."
Such concerns may be one reason so many Americans remain on the fence. "I don't like bashing one's opponent. I think they should make their point &#8230; but not be bashing their opponent," Curry continues. Basically, he says, "I'm still kind of stuck. If you believe them, they both say their plan is best. But that's impossible. So it's difficult to believe what they say. They both stretch the truth&#8230;."
The vice president has tried to wedge those voters away from Bush by accusing the Republican of supporting tax policies that would make the rich even richer, while doing nothing for the middle class.
The governor has countered that his tax plan has something for every taxpayer, and that his prescription drug proposals would help this group with its medical bills.
The undecided voters listened to this debate last week, and most of them (51 percent) decided that the two candidates had done "equally well," according to the Monitor/TIPP poll.
Both candidates are expected to focus their attention once again on this group in tomorrow night's debate in St. Louis, while at the same time trying to avoid driving even more voters toward Messrs. Nader, Browne, and Buchanan.
Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society