||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Where the race stands now: Gore by a nose
(CNN) -- We'll know exactly where the contest between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush stands during the next couple of days, but the early soundings suggest a competitive contest -- with Gore beginning with a small edge.
The vice president didn't merely get a "bounce" from Los Angeles. He appears to have fundamentally re-made the 2000 race. There's a big difference.
A bounce invariably dissipates, since what goes up ultimately must come down. But Gore not only changed his speaking style, but his reputation and image, as well. Voters apparently see him as more decisive and as more of a leader than they did just a month ago.
Some polls conducted around Labor Day produced weird results that should be taken with a grain (or a whole bag) of salt. A Princeton Survey Research poll for Newsweek showed Gore ahead by 10 points, a margin far larger than what anyone else showed up to that time, and far above what private GOP polling showed. (The pollster's numbers have consistently showed Gore doing better and Bush doing worse than other polls.)
And a bizarre Florida poll by Rasmussen Research not only showed Gore with a 48%-40% lead in the state, it also showed Bush with a higher unfavorable (43%) than favorable (40%) rating in Florida. But Rasmussen uses automated polling, and its overall methodology is severely criticized by established pollsters.
Those potentially misleading polls notwithstanding, individual state polls confirm Gore's new standing. The vice president has improved his position noticeably, pulling ahead comfortably in a number of reliably Democratic states such as New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont.
In addition, the vice president has rallied in generally Republican states, such as Indiana, where a recent survey shows him trailing Bush by nine points. Earlier polling suggested that Bush held a lead in the upper teens in the state. But Bush is still doing better in Indiana than his father did in 1992 or Bob Dole did in 1996.
And in critical Missouri, one poll which had Bush ahead comfortably now shows Gore ahead narrowly.
Bush has clearly had a rough few weeks. His vice presidential nominee, Dick Cheney, fumbled questions about what he would do with certain Halliburton options. Instead of immediately promising to forego those options (as he ultimately decided), Cheney insisted for more than a week that he was looking into the alternatives, all the while allowing Democrats and the media to beat him up over the issue.
Bush's handling of Gore's debate challenge also kept him on the defensive. While he has tried to turn this issue around, it's hard to see the GOP nominee as benefiting from "the debate over the debates."
And Bush's mishandling of his charges about the military's lack of readiness was a disaster, since it raised questions about his credibility and allowed Gore to turn around a potential vulnerability.
Bush didn't help himself with an off-color comment about a political reporter, or with the impression that he was relaxing while Gore and Joe Lieberman were out campaigning full-time around Labor Day.
But Gore's greatest asset at the moment may be the elimination of questions of "character" from the race. Issues such as taxes and prescription drugs have come to dominate the discussion, and Gore has an advantage now that the subject has turned to public policy.
And Gore's just-released economic plan is politically astute. By planning to eliminate the debt and talking about saving some of the surplus to guard against lower tax revenues, Gore looks like the fiscal conservative in the race. It's up to the Republicans to discredit that plan.
With the race so close, however, and the future unclear, both Bush and Gore have opportunities to stumble. The key swing states still look up for grabs, making the 2000 race a rare toss-up some two months before Election Day.