YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Campaigns Locked in Trench Warfare in the Final Hours

Voting: Uncertainty in key states ensures that the presidential race is too close to call. Bush, Gore camps scour polls to find any signs of a breakthrough in waning days.


DEARBORN, Mich. — As the longest presidential campaign in memory careens through its final weekend, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore still find themselves running virtually step for step across an electoral map filled with states too close to call.

Not in at least 20 years, and perhaps 40, has the result of a presidential race appeared so uncertain in the last hours before election day.

National polls give Texas Gov. Bush a narrow advantage, but Vice President Gore is still showing enough strength in key battleground states like this to retain his hope of a comeback.

Adding to the uncertainty was the unpredictable effect of last week's revelation that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976--and may have misled a reporter who earlier asked him whether he had ever been arrested after 1968, when he was charged with stealing a Christmas wreath as a fraternity prank.

Early polls from ABC found no effect from the story--just one Bush supporter of 700 surveyed by ABC said the news caused him to shift his vote to Gore. But whether coincidentally or not, Gore ticked up Saturday in the national tracking poll conducted for Reuters and MSNBC, cutting Bush's lead from 4 to 2 percentage points. And with the race so close, and the information so new, some analysts felt its true effect, if any, could not be measured until election day.

Both sides were scouring poll data Saturday for any sign of a current developing that would propel one man to a decisive lead. But, in both parties, most experts don't yet see signs that voters are poised to make the kind of decisive late break that, for instance, carried Ronald Reagan from a nail-biter to a landslide over Jimmy Carter on the campaign's last weekend in 1980.

"There's a drift, as opposed to a trend, in our direction over the past week," asserted Tom Cole, chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. "I don't see anything as dramatic as 1980. . . . Something like that could occur, but my sense is . . . it is going to go right to the end in a very close contest."

And that means both sides will spend the campaign's last hours locked in a form of trench warfare, scrambling for every possible advantage.

Which is why labor officials here were door-knocking for votes Saturday morning; Gore was barnstorming his home state of Tennessee on Saturday; liberal groups in the Pacific Northwest were frantically trying to push Ralph Nader supporters to Gore, and the National Rifle Assn. was firing endless volleys of phone calls into the battleground states for Bush.

Inspiring all this activity was a shared conviction encapsulated by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake: "If no outside events intervene, it will be toe-to-toe until the end, and turnout will be the thing that decides it."

Polls Find Lead by Bush Narrowing

National polls released Saturday all showed Bush still ahead, though Newsweek as well as MSNBC-Reuters showed his margin narrowing. His lead in three surveys ranged from 2 to 4 percentage points.

What's made this contest so distinctive is not only the narrowness of the overall national margin but also the profusion of states still legitimately in play on the campaign's last weekend. With Bush displaying the capacity to contest Democratic-leaning turf like Iowa and Minnesota, and Gore confounding expectations by pressing Bush to the wall in Florida, the two sides were still battling this weekend for more than a dozen states at the tipping point.

Surveys released Saturday night by independent pollster John Zogby showed Bush and Gore within 2 percentage points of each other in Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Gore led by 3 points in Washington state.

"We've got a lot of states that are way beyond any legitimate pollster telling you he or she knows what is going to happen," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

Indeed, so many states remained within reach for either man that even optimistic scenarios constructed by some strategists on both sides have produced cliffhanger results. One senior union official privy to Democratic polling this week estimated that Gore would win 273 electoral votes--just three more than the 270 needed for victory.

Likewise, one assessment completed last week at the RNC gave Bush 287 electoral votes--and that total included Michigan, where almost all public polls last week showed Gore ahead. If Gore won Michigan's 18 electoral votes, and all the other states followed the RNC's projection, the two men would be tied at 269 electoral votes--throwing the race into the House of Representatives.

Some Echoes of 1888 Election

A tie, of course, remains a distant possibility. Still unlikely but less remote is the chance that Gore could narrowly lose the popular vote yet eke out an electoral college majority.

That hasn't happened since 1888, when Democrat Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost an electoral college majority to Republican Benjamin Harrison.

Los Angeles Times Articles