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CAMPAIGN 2000

A Key but Not a Lock for Gov. Bush

Polls: GOP convention boosts the nominee and impresses some voters, but undecideds still a hard sell.

August 05, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — After a Republican convention targeted squarely at moderates and independents, George W. Bush has strengthened his position with those voters but has still not closed the sale with Americans torn between him and Vice President Al Gore, a Times analysis of voter reaction suggests.

National opinion polls released Thursday and Friday showed Bush receiving the traditional "bounce" that candidates gain at their convention and widening his lead over Gore to double digits. An NBC poll taken Thursday night gave Bush an 11-percentage-point lead over Gore; the Battleground 2000 poll, which tracked voter reaction all week, put the Texan's advantage at a towering 19 points.

But conversations Thursday night with uncommitted voters who watched Bush's acceptance speech suggest it's an open question whether he can solidify that lead into a lasting commitment.

While the speech inspired some to see Bush as more presidential and committed to an aggressive policy agenda, others continued to doubt his readiness for the presidency and were skeptical that he could achieve the ambitious reform goals he presented in education, Social Security and the military.

Hovering over all of these assessments were continued doubts about Gore among many of these same voters. That combustible mix of attitudes suggests this race could remain volatile for some time, as voters sort out their assessments of the two first-time nominees, each of whose flaws seem as obvious to many Americans as their virtues.

"I really don't know who I'll vote for," said Delores Capocasa, an undecided voter from St. Paul, Minn., after watching the speech. "I'm really not too excited about what the Democrats have to offer, but Bush hasn't convinced me."

To assess voter reactions to the convention and Bush's speech, the Times interviewed about a dozen voters who described themselves as either undecided or loosely committed to Gore or Bush in a Times Poll late last week. (That survey showed Bush holding a 5-percentage-point lead over Gore.)

In addition, the Times monitored the results of focus groups held with undecided voters during the speech by MSNBC and online reactions gathered on the political Web site http://www.speakout.com.

Both of those sessions provided viewers with tools so they could record their impressions of each line in the speech.

All of the measures point toward similar conclusions: Bush made a positive impression on many voters but not an overwhelmingly positive impression. That was most vividly displayed in the SpeakOut.com numbers tracking reaction through the address.

While Republican viewers reacted with great enthusiasm to the speech and Democrats were cool, independents gave Bush resolutely average marks for virtually everything he said.

"Independents were favorable but not overly enthusiastic," said Will Feltus, a Republican pollster who now directs the polling operation at SpeakOut.com.

That equivocal verdict was largely mirrored in The Times interviews with undecided and loosely committed voters.

On the one hand, the interviews suggested that with some voters Bush met his campaign's top goal for the speech: portraying himself as a strong leader ready for the presidency.

"He seemed presidential for the first time," said homemaker Suzanne Kozloskie, an undecided voter from Metuchen, N.J., after watching the address. "I always thought of him as kind of cocky, and that didn't surface tonight. He was sincere and thoughtful, and that was a side of him I hadn't seen."

Likewise, Arthur Parrish, a retired country club manager in Hollywood, Fla., liked Bush's "charisma" and ability to sell his ideas. Parrish, who's been leaning toward Bush but has been unsure, says the speech solidified his belief that the Texas governor is ready for the presidency.

"The people in the audience had tears in their eyes," Parrish said. "He's a leader. Gore is a follower."

In The Times interviews and the MSNBC focus group, Bush also drew praise for his repeated promises to work across party lines and calm the partisan wars in Washington.

Barbara, an undecided voter from Long Island, N.Y., who refused to give her last name, was struck by Bush's discussion of his close relationship with the late Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat. "It's an unusual circumstance to have your second-in-command be from the opposition party and to work very well with him," she said.

After three nights in which the convention devoted little time to Bush's agenda, the candidate also drew positive marks for providing a much clearer sense of his policy priorities. Mary Bess Kincaid, an undecided voter in Lawrence, Kan., said she liked that Bush "approached the problems that he thought were important to the nation."

She added: "This seems to be a more wholesome type of agenda and better in character than the current administration, and perhaps an improvement over many of the past administrations. He seems sincerely to want moral meaning and a moral agenda. I think that's important."

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