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In Michigan, Undecided Voters Look for a Sign From St. Louis

Election: From 10% to 12% of the bellwether state's electorate have yet to make a presidential pick. And they could decide the race on Nov. 7.


WESTLAND, Mich. — After three debates totaling 270 minutes of give-and-take over issues and records, Al Gore on Tuesday night finally won what he has been fighting for: LeeAnn Pennington's vote.

"I came in leaning [George W.] Bush but I changed my mind," Pennington, a married mother of two preschool children, said midway through Tuesday's debate. "Just the things [Gore] said about education and about tax cuts for college. I'm middle class. I won't have a lot of money for college for my kids."

The reaction of undecided voters such as Pennington on the heels of Tuesday's final face-off between Gore and Bush could be key to deciding who gets Michigan's 18 electoral votes Nov. 7. And many analysts believe that whoever takes Michigan will take the White House.

The state has a reputation as a national political barometer--in three of the last four presidential elections the results here were within 1% of the national results. And it has assumed even greater importance in this year's closely contested race, with each camp counting Michigan as a crucial block in cobbling together the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Bush Pulls Even in Latest Poll

Earlier in the campaign, statewide polls gave Gore modest leads over Bush. But surveys last week found that Bush had drawn virtually even with Gore, with 10% to 12% of voters undecided.

The latter category included Pennington and four of her acquaintances, including co-workers at Westland Convalescent Center, a skilled nursing facility in suburban Detroit. They gathered in one of the facility's community rooms to watch Tuesday night's debate.

Before the broadcast, they were asked in a mock secret ballot who they would vote for if forced at that moment to choose. Three backed Bush; two were for Gore.

After viewing the town hall-style debate from St. Louis, they were asked to again cast a secret ballot. Three went for Gore, one for Bush and one for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

But only Pennington said she was won over completely; the rest insisted they still could change their minds.

As the debate progressed, they listened attentively at first, nibbling on pizza. As Gore mentioned his proposal for a $10,000 tax deduction for higher education, he got the attention of Karen Platt, a 44-year-old mother of a high schooler and a college student.

"That's good for me," said Platt, an administrative office assistant at the convalescent center.

A few minutes later, Bush stressed that he doesn't want the federal government making local education decisions. Pennington and Peggy Ellenwood, one of the convalescent center's community relations specialists, scoffed at the comment.

"He keeps saying he doesn't want government to do these things, then [why] does he want to be president?" Pennington asked.

Bush's crack that, "If this were a spending contest [with federal dollars], I'd come in second," earned some laughs. But it also pointed up what Ellenwood's daughter, Jackie Ellenwood, 26, saw as a key flaw in the Texas governor's debate performance.

"He never answers the question directly," she said.

All of this campaign's top issues seem to resonate in Westland, a tree-shrouded working-class community between the strong Democratic precincts in and around Detroit and the more Republican outlying regions.

Westland voters worry about the future of Social Security and Medicare, as well as the quality of the environment and education. But for the first time in years the economy is not an overriding issue here or elsewhere in Michigan. Unemployment--a chronic concern in a state where the automotive industry is the backbone of the economy--stood at 3.8% in August, below the national rate of 4.1%.

As a result, analysts say the key to victory in Michigan this year may have less to do with issues than with the candidates' personal characteristics.

Those who make their choices based on policy positions have largely decided, the analysts say. For the rest, "it's the likability factor," said Ed Sarpolus, a pollster for EPIC/MRA in Lansing, before the debate. "And Gore really needs to regain his likability numbers."

Tuesday night, Gore gained ground on that score with Jeff Watts, a gardener at the convalescent home. He had been leaning toward the vice president before the debate. Now he's a bit more certain Gore will get his vote on Nov. 7.

"It was just his demeanor," said Watts, 46, who described himself as a Democrat who occasionally votes Republican. "I have much more distrust toward Bush, but I can't really say why that is."

Watts said issues such as Social Security matter to him, but not enough to spur him to delve into the competing proposals to figure out which one he likes best.

As the debate neared an end, Watts leaned back in a wing chair and watched with hands folded and forefingers touching his lips. The candidates were asked what effect their tax proposals would have on a middle-class taxpayer.

'She's Not Buying It,' Viewer Says

Gore reeled through scenarios in which tax reforms would aid in building up savings accounts and paying for continuing education. Bush spun his answer wider, encapsulating foreign policy. The camera cut away to show the questioner's face.

"She's not buying it," Watts said quietly.

Platt and Ellenwood wondered at the debate's end whether such forums were the best format for getting the candidates to better illuminate their positions.

"I think they're both saying what they think you want to hear," Platt said, suggesting a format in which candidates appear alone and discuss their stances with an impartial questioner. "When they were asked a question, they'd get completely off target. If they knew what they were talking about, they wouldn't do that."

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