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Race Shaping Up to Be Repeat of 1960 Squeaker


WASHINGTON — As George W. Bush campaigned in Florida on Saturday and Al Gore reluctantly bought television ads for the first time in Tennessee, each presidential candidate unintentionally sent the same message: Less than a month to election day, neither can yet take very much for granted.

After the first round of presidential and vice presidential debates, both contenders are still defending terrain they had hoped to lock down long ago--like Bush in previously Republican-leaning Florida or Gore in his home state of Tennessee. They also are struggling to win support from independent voters who remain defiantly unattached to either.

The result is an unrelentingly volatile and unpredictable race--with the two candidates contesting an unusually long list of states, national polls careening and conflicting, and judgments about the two men among swing voters constantly subject to reconsideration.

Case in point: All instant polls showed that most viewers thought Gore won last week's debate with Bush. Yet, as the week wore on, Bush seemed to benefit most from the encounter, rising in most national polls as questions accumulated about the accuracy of several of Gore's assertions.

"It is keeping in character that the apparent victory for Gore in the debate hasn't put Bush away, just as Gore's lead in September never put Bush away and Bush's lead earlier in the year never put Gore away," said Andy Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The lack of conviction about these candidates goes on, and each has some apparent strengths and some clear shortcomings in the eyes of swing voters.

"It doesn't look like either side will deliver the knockout punch until election day."

Indeed, the real story of this presidential campaign--like the equally tight battle underway for control of Congress--may be that the Democratic and Republican parties are operating today in a position of extraordinary parity. "The two parties are probably more evenly matched across the country than they have been at any time in modern history," said Tom Cole, the Republican National Committee's chief of staff.

Both sides expect that control of the House and Senate will rest on narrow majorities. "There is no way we can blow them out or they can blow us out in the congressional races," Cole said.

Meanwhile, the race between Bush and Gore is shaping up as the closest in years--perhaps since John F. Kennedy's 49.7%-49.5% squeaker over Richard Nixon in 1960. "This is Kennedy-Nixon, this is 1960," insisted GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "This has the feel of one that could very well go all the way to the end."

One measure of the race's competitiveness is the size of the battlefield. Overall, Gore may now hold a slight electoral college edge--particularly with recent polls showing him maintaining a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, a critical battleground. But much remains in flux.

Usually when leaves start falling, so do the candidates' lists of target states. This year, the opposite is occurring, as both men are showing unusually strong appeal in states that have leaned toward the opposition.

Bush is continuing to contest five states that Democrats have won in each of the last three elections: Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Iowa and West Virginia. On another front, the Gore decision to advertise in Tennessee came after a public opinion poll showed Bush narrowly leading there. And the most recent public opinion poll shows Bush narrowly leading in President Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

Even in California, where polls continue to show Gore with a large lead, the RNC plans to begin airing ads at a cost of $1 million a week in the Los Angeles market later this week, party officials said Saturday.

Yet at the same time, Gore recently added Nevada to his list of targets and continues to press Bush with repeated campaign visits--if not heavy advertising buys--in Florida, a must-win state for Bush. Although both sides claim their private polls give them a narrow lead in Florida, the GOP's anxiety about the state is measured in its heavy investment there--in the last two weeks, Bush and the RNC have outspent Gore and the Democratic National Committee by about 3 to 1 in Florida, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buys for The Times.

The most recent national polls also showed an extremely tight race. On Saturday, the daily MSNBC/Reuters tracking survey gave the vice president a 4 percentage point lead; a Newsweek poll released Saturday showed Gore 1 point ahead, the same margin he enjoyed in a Fox-Opinion Dynamics poll released Friday.

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