Two weeks before election day, Americans remain sharply divided - and often uneasy - in the choice between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
Why the uncertainty? There are multiple factors at work.
First, both Democrat Gore and Republican Bush have successfully gotten their messages across to voters, but the effect has been to split the electorate almost right down the middle.
Mr. Gore has won the support of voters who see him as tough, smart, and highly experienced in the ways of government. They say he will be good for the economy, and will improve medical care for the elderly.
Mr. Bush has solidified his base among Americans who judge him to be a strong, honest, and moral leader. They like his program to cut taxes across the board, and they are convinced he will strengthen the military.
Yet there remains a large chunk of voters this year who are unswayed. They are unhappy with both candidates. Many of these voters have seriously considered third-party candidates, particularly Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.
The race remains so fluid and close, even at this late hour, that neither Democrats nor Republicans can rest easy. Large numbers of voters - particularly independents - warn that they may still change their minds before election day.
According to the newest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of 829 likely voters nationwide, Bush leads Gore narrowly - 44 percent to 42 percent, the same as a week ago, although still within the poll's margin of error.
Either man could still win. Eight percent of Gore supporters and 6 percent of Bush supporters say they may switch sides. And among independents, 16 percent may switch.
Even more worrisome for the two major-party nominees - particularly Gore - is the fact that 1 of every 4 likely voters has seriously considered voting for a minor-party candidate.
Among independent voters, 42 percent have toyed with the prospect of voting for a third party. Even among Bush and Gore backers, about 1 of every 5 has considered jumping to a third-party candidate.
"The third-party dynamics still have the potential to make or break the frontrunners," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, who conducted the poll. "Nader and [Reform Party nominee Pat] Buchanan may still be on the radar of some key groups, such as independents and undecideds."
The threat to Gore appears more serious, since the most appealing third-party contender at this time is clearly Mr. Nader, who got 4.5 percent support in the Monitor/TIPP poll. (Libertarian Party nominee Harry Browne and the Reform Party's Mr. Buchanan each got less than 1 percent.)
Nationwide, 16 percent of voters say they have given serious consideration to voting for Nader. Among independents, that rises to 26 percent.
Analysts say that Nader could tip the balance in states like Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as in Maine. California could also feel a Nader effect. The result could be a victory for Bush in one or more of those normally Democratic states, if Nader takes away votes that would otherwise go to Gore.
As the Bush-Gore contest draws near the finish line, it is clear that each man has special strengths working for him.
Bush wins hands-down over Gore in such characteristics as honesty and forthrightness. Voters call him moral, ethical, pleasant, likable. Bush also scores slightly higher than Gore in terms of "strong leadership" and as a person who "understands people like you."
"Bush seems to be more open-minded in achieving his goals as a leader, where Gore has a specific plan," says Ken Ray, a Bush supporter in Wisconsin. "I don't think you can just ram something through. You have to be flexible."
Gore's strongest characteristics, according to those polled, were his extensive government experience and his intelligence.
Mary Deasy, a California voter who favors Gore, says: "Experience is the most important issue, because the president is going to be dealing with a lot of other political figures from other countries.... You can't just say, 'I'm a gifted amateur.' "
On the issues, voters say that Gore would be more likely to pay off the federal debt, help the poor, create new jobs, and fix the medical system for the elderly.
Bush comes out best on taxes and military strength.
The two candidates are perceived by voters to be almost equally appealing in terms of education policy, reforming Social Security, and keeping the United States out of war.
Other poll findings:
* The third debate. By a narrow margin (28 percent to 25 percent), Gore beat Bush in their final debate, voters said.
* Voter intensity. The proportion of voters who say they support their candidate "strongly" rose to 74 percent for Bush (up from 70) in the past week, and rose to 63 percent for Gore (up from 60).
* Vice-presidential choices. Many Bush supporters (49 percent) and Gore supporters (40 percent) said their choices for vice president were important in helping them decide whom to support for president.
* Wavering voters. Americans who are still undecided in this race tilt slightly toward Gore (23 percent to 20 percent).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society