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Passion for Bush, Gore Hard to Find in Ohio Town

Election: In bellwether Chillicothe, many voters say their vote will be based on 'lesser of two evils.'


CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — Listen to the voices of this small city, set amid the russet and gold of the Appalachian foothills, and you may appreciate why this presidential race is so competitive and yet, for many, so uninspiring.

Melissa Hagen, 25, already has cast an absentee ballot for Democrat Al Gore. "Some of George Bush's stands scare me," she says. "On gun control and abortion he's way too conservative for my taste. The problem is, I don't really love Gore either."

Neither does Janet Ackley, 46. The vice president lost her vote when he failed to vigorously condemn President Clinton for his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. So Ackley is backing Republican Bush, but not with any passion. "He's the lesser of two evils, definitely," she says.

After two convention extravaganzas, three nationally televised debates and tens of millions of dollars in advertising, Bush and Gore are familiar, if easily caricatured, figures. (Bush is the simpleton; Gore the know-it-all.) Their differences concerning the issues--from Bush's more generous tax cut proposal and plan to overhaul Social Security to Gore's more restrictive policy on guns and support for abortion rights--are clear to most of those paying attention.

Still, with just more than two weeks left until the election, the presidential campaign remains the closest in a generation. In this quaint community, about 45 miles south of Columbus, the capital, voters seem as closely divided as the rest of the nation.

What comes through most, however, in two days of interviews is how often people cast their presidential pick in negative terms. Ruth List Jones, 50, is no Gore fan. But she finds Bush "so disgusting I gave up my idea of voting for Ralph Nader for fun."

Linda Large, 43, isn't all that wild about the Texas governor herself. But Gore "is just egotistical. . . . Bush is more willing to let others do part of it and not think he has to handle it all himself."

Also striking is how events such as the much-hyped presidential debates proved to be largely inconsequential, even for those who bothered tuning in. Of more than three dozen people interviewed, most said the face-to-face matchups merely reinforced their sentiments.

Region a Political Battle Zone

And another thing stands out: how little it matters to many people who gets elected president, at least so far as the economy is concerned--which may partly explain why Gore has gotten so little benefit from the nation's record prosperity.

"I don't give credit to what the White House did," said Melody Long, a 29-year-old legal assistant, as she clutched a sheaf of folders across the street from the Ross County courthouse. "I believe it's personal choices you make--career choices, spending choices, savings choices."

Chillicothe, with a population of about 22,500, is rich in history. It was Ohio's first capital and its limestone-and-brick court building served as the original statehouse. Mt. Logan, in the forested hills to the east, is depicted on the state seal.

Today, the region is hard-fought political ground. In 1992, Bush's father carried the 6th Congressional District, which takes in most of Chillicothe, by a single percentage point over then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton. Four years later, Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole here, also by a single percentage point. Clinton won the state both times.

Of the Midwest battleground states--Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri--Ohio is the one that leans Republican. It also may be the most critical for Bush; no GOP nominee has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.

While the Texas governor enjoys a lead in most national polls, neither candidate has established a firm footing in the state-by-state electoral college contest that will decide the outcome of the Nov. 7 election. More than a dozen states--including Ohio--remain up for grabs.

A statewide poll published Saturday in the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed Bush ahead, 45% to 41%, but his lead fell within the survey's 4-percentage-point margin of error. Both sides here predict a close fight to election day.

To have a shot, Gore has to match Clinton's performance in the 6th District, which covers most of the southern part of the state. While Bush has led handily most of the year, Democrats say their polling has picked up movement in Gore's direction and the two are running much closer.

"Rumors of our death"--which the Bush campaign has promulgated--"are greatly exaggerated here in Ohio," state Democratic Party Chairman David J. Leland said. His GOP counterpart, Robert T. Bennett, agreed that the race "won't be over until election day."

There is little in Chillicothe to suggest such a hard-fought contest. While Ohio is being bombarded with TV ads, there are few political placards around town and even fewer bumper stickers. But not everyone is unhappy with their choices.

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