Final themes: prosperity vs. trust

At its most basic level, the presidential race is a contest - and choice - between two potent messages.

The messages are flying thick and fast in these final days of the 2000 presidential race.

The airwaves are choked with advertisements, especially in battleground states. Telephones ring with auto-dialed, taped messages. Surrogates for each candidate - Barbara Bush, Bill Clinton, governors, wives, children, movie stars, whoever will catch the public's attention - are ricocheting across the country, aiming pitches at senior citizens and African-Americans, gun owners and college students.

But the words that matter most are the ones coming from the candidates themselves. And in these frenetic last days of this too-tight-to-breathe contest, when every vote matters, Al Gore and George W. Bush are back to hammering their core messages. In essence, it's prosperity versus values.

For Mr. Gore, it comes down to the economy. He asks: Do you want to go forward or backward? A Bush vote, the Democrat says, amounts to a vote for "big tax giveaways to the wealthy, big deficits, big debt, and repeat recessions," while a vote for Gore means "affordable tax cuts for families" and continued balanced budgets and prosperity.

For Bush, his candidacy is all about values. One is the two-way street called "trust" - that he can be trusted personally to uphold the honor of the presidency, and that he trusts the American people, and not Washington, to know what to do with their money.

Another is leadership. Over and over, the Republican tells voters, "this nation needs somebody to bring us together." It's time, he says, to stop the partisan bickering in Washington.

But at this late stage, Gore's challenge from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader - who is costing him votes in crucial Democratic-leaning states - has forced him to muddy his message and fight the battle on two fronts.

"The problem with Gore today is his message isn't as unified as Bush's," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio. "It may be that it can't be, given all the hoops he has to jump through."

In his appearance Tuesday night on "The Tonight Show," Gore defended his environmental record against Mr. Nader's, without referring to the consumer advocate by name. The fact that Gore is defensive even on the environment - given his authorship of the weighty environmental manifesto, "Earth in he Balance" - is just one sign that the vice president's campaign isn't going according to plan.

Democratic activists in strong Nader states sound almost desperate in their efforts to persuade voters that a vote for Nader amounts to a vote for Bush. In Minnesota, a state Gore must win to become president, Democratic spokeswoman Karen Louise Boothe wants Nader supporters to become "Nader-Traders": Vote for Gore in Minnesota, and get a friend in a nonbattleground state to vote for Nader.

The Nader camp is keen to cross the 5 percent threshold nationwide, so that the Green Party will qualify for federal matching funds in 2004. So another worry in the Gore camp is that, by election day, if voters think Gore is going to lose anyway, they may vote for Nader to help him get his 5 percent. In a tight race, that perception could help defeat Gore on election day, analysts say.

Still, Nader isn't posting his biggest polling numbers in the four most closely fought states: Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. In those states, Bush's and Gore's messages are finely tuned to appeal directly to the demographics of those voters.

In Florida and Pennsylvania, it's all about the senior citizens, and the message from each camp - backed by millions of dollars' worth of TV ads, millions of phone calls, and millions of pieces of direct mail - will center on Social Security and Medicare.

"Both parties have money to burn in Florida, and burn it they have," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

All this focus on Social Security and Medicare, she adds, may produce a backlash in the central part of the state, the heart of the Florida battleground. "The younger population is sick of hearing about senior issues."

In Michigan, still too close to call, message-mongers also need to consider the law of unintended consequences. The pro-gun lobby, backed by actor Charlton Heston, has worked hard to peel votes from the traditionally Democratic union membership.

But, says independent Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus, Mr. Heston is hurting Bush, because he's reminding Republican women about guns - and 3 of 5 Republican women agree with the Democratic position favoring greater gun control.

The latest polls out of Michigan show Gore gaining among seniors, as he pushes on their issues, and Bush gaining among voters under 50, as he focuses on education. Among another sought-after demographic - the more than 650,000 voters who went for Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary here - Gore is beating Bush, 60 percent to 40 percent, when the undecideds are factored out, says Mr. Sarpolus.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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