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Down-to-Wire Race Fails to Excite Voters

Campaign: In closely contested Oregon, many people are tired of all the political talk. Nationwide, only 1 in 3 follows the race, a survey says.


SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — While Al Gore and George W. Bush locked horns Wednesday night in their second of three presidential debates, retirees Patti Anderson and Lucille Riggs decided they'd rather see the movie "Autumn in New York" at the $1 theater in the Gateway Mall here.

"We haven't been to a show in a while," explained Riggs, 65.

"I watched the other debate, and I'm not really crazy about either of them," added Anderson, who described herself as "39 and holding."

Erin Perry, 22, isn't crazy about the candidates either. She sat in the nearby Gateway Bistro sipping a pint of amber beer with her friend Leslie Rose, 21, while keeping an eye on the televised major league baseball playoff between the Seattle Mariners--regional favorites--and the New York Yankees.

"I get so sick of all the [political] stuff on TV," said Perry, who works in a nearby jewelry store. "I've had enough of it. They're both idiots."

For political junkies, those who follow voter tracking surveys like Wall Street day traders, the campaign has had enough policy arguments, intrigue and shifts in the polls to keep the cell phones chirping. For many others, though, what may be the closest presidential race in decades has been drowned out by the din of their daily lives.

A survey released Sunday by the Vanishing Voter project found that only half of voting-age Americans have thought about the campaign or could remember a news story about it. Only a third described themselves as following the race closely.

As low as those levels are, they were the highest recorded all year, said Thomas E. Patterson, survey director for the project, part of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Safety at Harvard University.

Interest Parallels 1996 Election

Overall, Patterson said, interest in the 2000 campaign tracks closely with the 1996 contest, when President Clinton coasted to reelection over Republican Bob Dole. Similarly, only 46.5 million people watched last week's initial Gore-Bush debate, about the same as the first Clinton-Dole debate four years ago--at the time a record low for viewership.

Turnout among eligible voters in the '96 race totaled 49%--the lowest level in what has been a generally steady decline since 63% of eligible voters went to the polls in 1960. Curtis B. Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, doubts turnout this year will alter that trend.

"The first debate left the undecided voters undecided, and if we have more debates like that, the undecideds will stay home," Gans said before Wednesday's debate.

James Sanford, 22, has pretty much decided, even though he has followed none of the give-and-take of the campaign. He didn't watch the first debate and was a customer at the Regis Hairstyle shop in Springfield as the second encounter was underway.

"I didn't even know it was on," he said.

A commercial fisherman, Sanford said he'll likely vote for Gore, in part because he thinks he'll be siding with a winner. What happens in the debates, he added, matters little to him.

In Oregon, a surprise battleground state this year, given its history of supporting Democratic presidential candidates, political interest usually tracks much higher than the national average. Four years ago, 57% of Oregon's voting-age population went to the polls, compared with a national rate of 49% (California, considered a lock for Gore, turned out only 44% in 1996, in part a reflection of the high number of noncitizens ineligible to vote).

Still, 4 out of 10 voting-age Oregonians stayed home during the 1996 election, and 1 in 5 isn't registered now.

It's not that people don't care about issues, said Michael G. Hagen, a senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, "it's just that they're not persuaded that politics is the solution . . . . And all the indicators are that [this attitude] won't be turned around. Even the excitement of this presidential election so far hasn't turned it."

Deborah Jackson, 45, is registered, but she isn't sure she'll vote, primarily because she has found little about the current race to interest her. She was shrouding the door of her gray-paneled modular home with strands of Halloween cobwebs as Wednesday's debate neared. She planned to go to a Bible study meeting instead of watching.

Voters Still Up in the Air on Candidates

Jackson is uncertain whether she will vote this year--she dislikes Bush for reasons she couldn't define and dislikes Gore because she opposed the Clinton administration's welfare reforms.

"Generally, I have found that whoever is running for president will [make promises] just to be voted in, and then they don't live up to what they were saying they were going to do," said Jackson, a divorced grandmother living on government disability payments.

Mary Feldman, 26, an aviation student at Lane Community College, didn't watch the first debate and wasn't planning to watch Wednesday's debate either. Feldman is registered but has only voted once in her life, about six years ago. She can't recall for whom she voted.

If she votes this year, it will be for Gore, based solely on television ads on health care reforms.

"I don't go and research candidates," Feldman said as she played a distracted game of fetch with her dog, Dutch Harbor, beneath a wide cherry tree in front of her modest ranch house. "I don't have any hot-button issues. A lot of people say it doesn't matter who you vote for."

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