Voters wait for pivotal moment

With just 25 days left to go, Campaign 2000 seems almost desperately in need of a defining moment.

So far, no single event appears to have tipped the race for president, which remains as tight as an army bedsheet despite hundreds of millions of dollars raised, thousands of pounds of confetti thrown, scores of campaign speeches, and two televised presidential debates.

Absent some iconic quip or moment - like 1992's "It's the economy, stupid" or 1984's "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" - every factor that poses even a remote possibility of turning the election takes on a larger-than-life significance.

Some of these are within the candidates' control, such as body language during the debates and even, indirectly, get-out-the-vote efforts. But many others, such as the renewed Mideast turmoil or a stock market nose dive, are not - a development that lends this campaign an unusual level of tension.

"The candidates are so evenly matched and the public is so divided between Republicans, Democrats, and those on the fence, that we haven't got a campaign with the conclusion already drawn," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

It's unusual, he adds - and "pretty exciting."

Certainly, George W. Bush's partisans hope his performance in Wednesday night's debate helped him gain ground. For what was surely one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted foreign-policy discussion in presidential-debate history, the Texas governor held his own against a two-term vice president with considerable international experience.

The Bush folks hope this second-of-three debates parallels the last few weeks of the 1980 campaign, when former California Gov. Ronald Reagan finally pierced public perceptions that he had helium-weight intellect. Once the doubts began to ebb, the race broke open for Reagan.

Bush partisans were perhaps most pleased with Bush's attempt to display a consistent philosophy on both foreign and domestic policy. "He showed he's got a vision of trusting people - trusting people in other countries to build democracy and trusting people in the US to improve things like education and Social Security," says Don Evans, Bush's campaign chairman.

Often the impact of debates doesn't solidify for several days, so it's too early to tell whether the 1980 parallel will come to pass.

And Gore aides counter that showing competence doesn't entitle a candidate to victory.

They say the campaign's defining moment may well come when the 8 to 10 percent of voters who are undecided walk into the voting booth on election day.

"A person who actually takes the time to go vote is pretty serious," says Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd (D). "They'll say, 'Who do I really want making serious decisions on serious issues like education, healthcare, and Social Security?' " He's confident their answer will be Vice President Al Gore.

Still, by erasing some doubts about his competence in world affairs, "Bush has leveled the playing field," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. So perhaps it's back to dead-set even.

It's a scenario that's been hard to escape this year. One reason is that there are several big competing elements that seem to cancel each other out.

The economy is the strongest it's been in American history - a fact that usually boosts the incumbent party. But the impeachment and scandals of the current president - plus the simple desire for change after eight years - makes many voters unwilling to automatically continue with the party in power.

Also, the new dynamics of surplus politics could allow for everything from a big tax cut to a major new government program.

But with "the era of big government" over, and after a decade in which universal healthcare was defeated and welfare reformed, big expansion of government isn't palatable to many voters. Likewise with tax cuts.

Surpluses make such moves possible, but voters aren't clamoring for them.

Indeed, the role of government may well be key. It was, again, a major subtext of many of the exchanges Wednesday night on everything from foreign policy to education.

It's something that many voters "feel both ways about in their hearts," says Dr. Birkner.

In the end, if the race doesn't break dramatically one way or the other, it could come down to on-the-ground efforts to motivate core party voters to turn out.

In the key swing state of Michigan - and across the nation - the Republican get-out-the-vote effort "exceeds anything we've done in any election to date," boasts Gov. John Engler. He concedes though, that Democrats have strong grass-roots organization.

In fact, some say all the effort to capture swing voters may be futile - that it may come down to core voters. "All these undecideds may never make up their minds - and may just never vote," says Gore adviser Greg Simon. "Maybe they're the 'undecid-ables.' "

Some analysts think that in the third debate - in St. Louis Oct. 17 - Gore may ratchet up the decidedly deferential tone he had in the second debate by, for instance, more-dramatically criticizing Bush's record in Texas. If so, it might signal a strategy to appeal more to his base than to swing voters.

Whatever the strategy, perhaps in St. Louis will come a moment that will define - and decide - the 2000 race.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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