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latimes.com: It's the little things that may decide race

latimes.com WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- Everything counts. In the presidential race's final turn, that may be the simple mantra for both George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Just two weeks before election day, the race remains so achingly close that the result could turn on factors too small to notice in an ordinary year. From Ralph Nader's share of the vote in the Pacific Northwest, to the effect on seniors in Pennsylvania and Florida of new Democratic ads on Social Security, to the relative success of the two parties' get-out-the-vote efforts, the campaigns are contending with a virtually endless list of variables that could determine the winner in an extraordinarily large number of states.

"Normally, the last couple of weeks is essentially a victory lap for one candidate and an exercise in self-delusion for the other," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "For the first time in a long time, these last two weeks really count."

Indeed, for the first time in decades, the number of states genuinely in play appears to be growing, not shrinking, as the election approaches.

In just the last few days, for instance, Republicans added Minnesota to their target list and are contemplating a return to the airwaves in Illinois, which they had virtually written off. Bush today is scheduled to appear in Gore's home state of Tennessee--where Republicans, encouraged by favorable polls, have launched a major television advertising push.

Meanwhile, Gore continues to press Bush in Nevada and, more important, Florida, where even GOP polls show the two men still close enough to feel the sweat on the other's brow.

This expansion of the battlefield comes amid a flurry of national polls released Monday that showed Gore narrowing the lead Bush opened last week after the three presidential debates. This latest reversal follows the pattern evident since early August: Neither Bush nor Gore has been able to maintain a significant lead for any sustained period.

"Neither one of these guys can put the other guy away," says Tom Cole, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.

Both the overall national poll numbers and the list of states in play indicate a slight advantage for Bush in the contest. Analysts in both parties say that with at least one-sixth of voters either undecided or loosely committed, either candidate could still potentially open a decisive lead in the campaign's final days. But for now, the polls suggest that with the impressions sparked by the debates receding, the race is drifting back toward equilibrium--just as it did after the effect of the conventions subsided earlier this fall.

Both men, in fact, appeared to emerge from the debates without neutralizing their greatest vulnerability. For Gore, the issue is honesty and sincerity: In a New York Times/CBS poll released Monday, only 37% of voters agreed that the vice president said what he really believed most of the time, rather than what people wanted to hear. (Almost half felt that way about Bush.)

Bush's preparedness an issue for Democrats

For Bush, the issue is whether he's fully prepared to serve as president, a theme Democrats are pounding on this week. In the New York Times/CBS survey, only 49% of voters said Bush had "prepared himself well enough for the job of president;" 73% felt that way about Gore.

Citing such lingering doubts, independent pollster John Zogby echoes many analysts when he concludes: "Neither candidate has closed the deal."

That's evident in most of the national polls released Monday. Zogby's tracking poll for Reuters and MSNBC gave Bush a two-percentage-point lead, down from four points the day before. The volatile CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, which had Bush as much as 10 points ahead over the weekend, also gave the Republican a two-point advantage. An ABC/Washington Post tracking survey released Monday showed Bush and Gore tied at 47%.

Not all polls are so close. One other tracking poll released Monday, the bipartisan Voter.com survey, gave Bush a five-point advantage. A Newsweek survey released Sunday put Bush seven points ahead. Privately, the Bush campaign believes it holds a lead of four or five points; Gore's polling showed Bush one point ahead through Sunday, officials say.

Perhaps even more revealing than the tightness of the national numbers is the breadth of the electoral college battlefield. With both Gore and Bush offering broadly centrist messages, each has been able to remain competitive in states the other party usually has secured by now.

Bush is reaching farther behind enemy lines than Gore: The Texas governor is still seriously contesting six states that have voted Democratic in each of the past three elections--Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Minnesota.

Gore, in contrast, doesn't appear to be a serious threat to capture any state won last time by Bob Dole. But Gore doesn't need to capture any Republican ground to win; it's Bush who has to peel away at least 109 of the 379 electoral votes Clinton won in 1996.

Right now, the map for both men is filled with question marks. Each side claims their private polling gives them the lead in the most closely contested states. But the public polls mostly show a dead heat. In just the last week, those surveys have shown Bush and Gore running within two points of each other in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Washington, Oregon, and Florida, and just three points apart in New Hampshire and Minnesota.

One key question in several of these states is whether Nader's liberal supporters stay with him--or drift back toward Gore for fear of delivering the election to Bush. Nader as of now is drawing enough support to potentially drive Washington, Oregon and perhaps Minnesota and Wisconsin to the GOP. Tad Devine, a senior consultant to Gore, says that about half of Nader's voters--he's now drawing about 4% nationally but as much as 8% or 9% in his best states--may be willing to switch to Gore.

With so many states at the tipping point, the focus in the days ahead may turn increasingly toward the ground game--each party's effort to mobilize and turn out its voters. "This could be the first presidential race in a long, long time where it truly makes the difference, maybe the first since 1968," says the RNC's Cole.

Each side promises an enormous effort to reach its supporters. The RNC and local GOP officials have budgeted an unprecedented $70 million to direct mail and phone calls meant to turn out their partisans; when the contributions of organized labor are included, Democrats will likely have a competitive effort, both sides agree.

Getting out the vote is repetitive, tiresome, unglamorous work. Yet those doing it likely will be energized this year by the prospect of actually making a difference.

"It is all about execution at this point," said Todd Cook, the Midwest political director of the Service Employees International Union, as he stood outside a computerized union phone-bank center in Michigan last week. "It's about making sure people are showing up when they're supposed to make phone calls, and people are going door-to-door when they are supposed to. All the little detail stuff."

In a race potentially this close, all those little things loom large.


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Tuesday, October 24, 2000

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