Which One Can Close The Sale?

Even after three debates, the undecided remain up for grabs

They have endured three Presidential debates. They have absorbed price shock at the gas pump, viewed terrifying images of violence in Gaza and the West Bank, and watched the stock market swoon. Now with Campaign 2000's finale looming, voters who haven't settled upon a White House favorite--anywhere from 12% to 25% of the electorate--are nearing decision time.

With polls showing the tightest Presidential race since 1976, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore are preparing a furious three-week sprint to the finish line. That means battling to control the agenda while mobilizing an unprecedented "ground war" to spur turnout among both party loyalists and micro-targeted swing voters. Says Bush senior strategist Karl Rove: "We've spent the last year and a half planning for this."

COLD SWEAT. Bush and Gore have the same objective: to cement the allegiance of a shifting group of swing voters who have bounced back and forth all year. Among them: suburban and senior women, lower-middle-class families earning under $50,000 per year, young voters, and non-Latino Catholics. At the moment, Democrats are edgy about Gore's early-October malaise, while GOP operatives are outwardly confident. Yet privately, many Republicans are in a cold sweat over a deadlocked electoral map.

Neither campaign got much of a boost from the final debate on Oct. 17 in St. Louis. While viewers told pollsters that Gore narrowly won the encounter--and two out of the three debates overall--a Gallup Poll said debate-watchers found Bush more likable, more believable, and closer to their positions on important issues.

To close the sale, Bush is focusing on personal characteristics--from leadership to truthfulness. To reinforce his image as an outsider who will favor solutions crafted at the state and local level rather than in Washington, the Texan is sending 29 of his fellow Republican governors on a barnstorming tour of the country on Oct. 23-25. Some evidence of GOP success: A new Washington Post-ABC News Political Poll shows that fewer than half of Americans call Gore "honest and trustworthy," down from a figure of 60% a month ago. "It could come down to: Who can voters stand to watch in their living room for the next four years?" says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

Gore strategists, meanwhile, still view the strong U.S. economy as their ace in the hole. Echoing the Vice-President's debate attacks, they'll hammer away at Bush's tax plan as a giveaway to the "wealthiest 1%" that could jeopardize two decades of prosperity. Gore also is leveling a withering attack on Bush's record as Texas governor. By doing so, he hopes to put the GOP nominee on the defensive on hot-button topics such as the environment and children's health care. "Al Gore has enormous strength when it comes to issues that matter to people," contends senior campaign adviser Tad Devine.

As the rivals battle for control of the agenda, the stakes couldn't be higher. On the eve of the final debate, Bush was clinging to a narrow lead in the daily tracking polls, and Green Party insurgent Ralph Nader was siphoning off enough votes from Gore to give Bush a shot at victory in such normally Democratic states as New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Democrats are worried that their core supporters--minorities, union workers, environmentalists, feminists, and left-wing activists--are not as motivated as their foes on the right. Indeed, Bush seems to have locked up his base, winning the backing of Christian fundamentalists, economic conservatives, gun-rights backers, and right-wing activists. Frets Michael Berman, a top Democratic strategist: "Republicans are a little more enthused than our voters right now."

Another problem for Gore: The populism and social liberalism that appeal to the Democratic base may alienate some pro-business independents and socially conservative Democrats. "The more he moves to the center, the more he risks alienating his left," says independent pollster John Zogby. "And the more he plays to the left, he risks losing the vital center."

To expand beyond their parties' bases, Gore and Bush are "micro-targeting" dozens of small voter blocs. Bush, for instance, is wooing a few thousand snowmobile owners who live north of State Highway 28 in northern Wisconsin and are angry at Clinton-Gore restrictions on snowmobiling in the national forests. Bush also is going after Arab-Americans in Michigan, many of whom are decidedly cool to Al Gore's pro-Israel tilt and his selection of an Orthodox Jew as his running mate. For his part, Gore has identified 20 key "constituency groups" in must-win states. Among them: Latinos in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Nashville; and gay voters in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

For both sides, the turnout on Election Day is crucial. Get-out-the-vote efforts "can move an election anywhere from two to five [percentage] points," says Gore field director Donnie Fowler. "In a really close election, it can make or break you." With the debates over and the Presidency at stake, every percentage point counts.

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