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At the Top, Focus Is on Candidates, Not Issues

A Close Contest Comes Down to Subjective Choices


It has been the exception that proves the rule, the election that confounds accepted trends.

As the presidential race closed in on the history books, the number of states where Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush were battling did not shrink but grew. Gore was competing strongly in Republican states, Bush in Democratic ones. The more the candidates talked about issues, the less the voters seemed to focus their decision solely on them.

Devoid of the big questions that have defined previous contests--a battered economy, the Soviet threat--the election presented itself as hinging less on stark differences and more on nuances. Voters yearned for clear, clean choices, but down to the final days, many of them seemed ambivalent. Or indifferent.

The contest may say less about the direction of the nation than about the likely turn of events when America is at relative peace and prosperity.

"It's not about government; it's not about foreign policy questions," said Andrew Kohut, who conducts nationwide polls for the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "It's about, 'Who do you feel most comfortable with?' "

The very subjectiveness of that choice has made deciding all the more difficult, to judge by the closeness of the contest. The election will serve as a gut check: Just what is important when picking a president?

To a great extent, the descriptions that voters hung on the candidates at the beginning of the campaign have held until its end. Bush is seen as the more likable, adept at discussing education policy yet lacking experience in a wide range of presidential demands. Gore is the experienced issues expert, versed in the intricacies of children's health insurance but saddled with questions about his trustworthiness.

Along the way, there have been bumps in the road for each: Gore had to power past the challenge of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley to win the Democratic nomination. Bush had to thwart the more substantial effort of Arizona Sen. John McCain to win the Republican banner.

The public battling of the Reform Party, which split into competing conventions spiced with lawyers and armed police, pushed that once-powerful body into prominence and then ignominy. The Green Party bid by consumer crusader Ralph Nader loomed as a larger threat to two-party reign--not because of Nader's chance to win but because of his potential to cost Gore victory in some usually Democratic states.

But ultimately it came down to the two men who were always the front-runners, two sons of privilege and political lineage: Bush, the son of a president and the grandson of a senator; Gore, the son of a senator who had groomed his son for the White House.

As the candidate whose party is trying to win the presidency for the first time since 1988, Bush broke most directly with his party's recent traditions. He vowed to sweep through Washington like a fresh breeze, blowing away the acrimony, bitterness and scandal that have soured relations between the Democratic President Clinton and the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

He broke, too, with the dour mien and the anti-government sentiments that have characterized his own party lately, replacing them with a disciplined, sunny optimism and an acceptance of an activist, if limited, government.

If his campaign in spirit drew from the 1980 victory of another optimist, Ronald Reagan, over the incumbent Jimmy Carter, then Gore's drew from the come-from-behind 1988 victory of Bush's own father against another governor who touted his state's progress--Massachusett's Michael S. Dukakis.

Much as the senior Bush did, Gore tried to persuade voters to stick with the candidate headed in the same direction as the two-term incumbent he wanted to replace. Gore's ability to do that, however, was complicated by his desire to keep the polarizing Clinton at arms' length. Gore outlined a host of expansive programs to define himself apart from Clinton. But he muddled his own image by--out of electoral necessity--straddling his party's liberal and moderate camps.

Not surprisingly, much of the heat of the general election campaign has been generated by attacks: Bush crowned Gore the king of big government, alleging that his proposals would break the bank. Gore accused Bush of favoring the wealthy over everyone else with his $1.3-trillion tax cut. Each accused the other of plans that would damage Social Security and abandon senior citizens who need prescription drugs.

With days to go, most partisan Democrats and Republicans had already made their decisions, but pollster Kohut estimated that one in five voters was still wavering. Victory is likely to hinge less on tax proposals and Social Security platforms than which element voters are best able to live with: questions of Bush's inexperience or Gore's truthfulness.

For months the race was a cacophony of sounds, the candidates racing from Oprah to Regis to the late night comics and the early morning shows. By its end, they seemed to be speaking with one voice: Give me your vote.

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