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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

White House Campaign Now a Game of Inches

Politics: Polls show a finely balanced race. Bush, Gore seek any geographic, demographic edge.

August 29, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Like competing weather systems, old alignments and new patterns are colliding to create a turbulent environment as the presidential campaign moves toward its final stages.

With the traditional benchmark of Labor Day approaching, both Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush are displaying a nearly matched set of strengths and weaknesses. Each is restoring some of his party's traditional advantages--but also challenging for states or groups of voters that have seemed in recent years part of the other party's base.

Post-convention polls suggest Gore is quickly reestablishing the recent Democratic advantage along the West Coast and in the Northeast. But he still faces a skeptical audience in the critical battlegrounds of the Midwest.

Meanwhile, even after Gore's post-convention bounce, Bush retains a dominant lead in the polls among men, especially white men--but is suddenly struggling to hold the female voters his campaign long has targeted.

In these ways and more, the landscape for election 2000 is coming into sharper focus. With most national surveys showing the two men in a virtual dead heat, the latest signs all point toward an autumn of trench warfare between two closely matched rivals. And both sides are contesting an unusually broad range of states.

Bush has signaled his intention to battle not only for states President Clinton won twice (such as Michigan and Pennsylvania) but also Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Iowa, and possibly even West Virginia--states that not only were won by Clinton, but that Democrat Michael S. Dukakis carried in the 1988 presidential race.

Similarly, Gore's trip to this steamy city Monday--his second to the state in less than a week--underscores his belief that he can swipe Florida, even though Democratic presidential nominees averaged less than 37% of the vote here from 1968 through 1992.

"It is a new election, and we don't want to be trapped in old assumptions about how states perform," says Gore senior advisor Tad Devine.

With the Nov. 7 election 10 weeks from today, here are some of the current trends.

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THE ELECTORAL MAP--Though Bush insists he intends to compete in both California and much of the Northeast, the first round of post-convention polls underscores the continued tilt of the coasts toward the Democrats.

At a time when Gore's lead in the nation ranged from only one to three percentage points, polls released last week in California and New Jersey showed the vice president leading by 13 and 12 points, respectively. And a new poll in New York gives Gore an 18-point lead. These numbers suggest it will be difficult for Bush to overcome Gore's built-in advantages in these states. Gore also restored his advantage in Minnesota, another traditional Democratic state, with the first post-convention poll giving him an eight-point lead. Strikingly, though, a poll in Michigan last week showed Gore ahead by just two points in a state Clinton won by double digits in 1996.

That may be a warning sign for Gore, who has struggled to win support from culturally conservative swing voters--especially men--in the Midwest. In the survey released last week by the Gallup Organization--which gave Gore a statistically insignificant one-percentage-point lead over Bush--the vice president trailed the GOP nominee in the Midwest by nine points, more than in any other region.

Senior Democrats acknowledge that along with Michigan, Midwestern states such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri may be considerably tougher for Gore than they were for Clinton. One reason is a little-discussed trend: A growing coolness toward Democrats in rural areas, especially in the wake of Clinton's impeachment stemming from the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Indeed, there are large rural populations in virtually every Democratic-leaning state--from Oregon and Washington to Wisconsin and Michigan--that Bush is threatening to win back for the GOP.

"You have significant rural populations . . . where the values stuff is very significant," says David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant. "We have to work harder with these rural voters, but the message that Gore has embraced and is campaigning on, the economic message, is what works with those voters."

Even as they ride their post-convention wave, Gore strategists are not sanguine about recapturing any of the predominantly Southern and Mountain West states that Republican Bob Dole won in 1996. Though Gore aides have talked about competing for North Carolina and Georgia, neither was included among the 17 states where the vice president's first general election ad aired last week. But aides say they may add those states to the mix later if Gore establishes a bigger national lead.

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