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It's the Little Things That May Decide Race

Campaign: Bush and Gore strategies reflect that the battleground appears to be growing as election nears.


WASHINGTON — Everything counts.

In the presidential race's final turn, that may be the simple mantra for both George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Just two weeks before election day, the race remains so achingly close that the result could turn on factors too small to notice in an ordinary year. From Ralph Nader's share of the vote in the Pacific Northwest, to the effect on seniors in Pennsylvania and Florida of new Democratic ads on Social Security, to the relative success of the two parties' get-out-the-vote efforts, the campaigns are contending with a virtually endless list of variables that could determine the winner in an extraordinarily large number of states.

"Normally, the last couple of weeks is essentially a victory lap for one candidate and an exercise in self-delusion for the other," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "For the first time in a long time, these last two weeks really count."

Indeed, for the first time in decades, the number of states genuinely in play appears to be growing, not shrinking, as the election approaches.

In just the last few days, for instance, Republicans added Minnesota to their target list and are contemplating a return to the airwaves in Illinois, which they had virtually written off. Bush today is scheduled to appear in Gore's home state of Tennessee--where Republicans, encouraged by favorable polls, have launched a major television advertising push.

Meanwhile, Gore continues to press Bush in Nevada and, more important, Florida, where even GOP polls show the two men still close enough to feel the sweat on the other's brow.

This expansion of the battlefield comes amid a flurry of national polls released Monday that showed Gore narrowing the lead Bush opened last week after the three presidential debates. This latest reversal follows the pattern evident since early August: Neither Bush nor Gore has been able to maintain a significant lead for any sustained period.

"Neither one of these guys can put the other guy away," says Tom Cole, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.

Both the overall national poll numbers and the list of states in play indicate a slight advantage for Bush in the contest. Analysts in both parties say that with at least one-sixth of voters either undecided or loosely committed, either candidate could still potentially open a decisive lead in the campaign's final days. But for now, the polls suggest that with the impressions sparked by the debates receding, the race is drifting back toward equilibrium--just as it did after the effect of the conventions subsided earlier this fall.

Both men, in fact, appeared to emerge from the debates without neutralizing their greatest vulnerability. For Gore, the issue is honesty and sincerity: In a New York Times/CBS poll released Monday, only 37% of voters agreed that the vice president said what he really believed most of the time, rather than what people wanted to hear. (Almost half felt that way about Bush.)

Bush's Preparedness an Issue for Democrats

For Bush, the issue is whether he's fully prepared to serve as president, a theme Democrats are pounding on this week. In the New York Times/CBS survey, only 49% of voters said Bush had "prepared himself well enough for the job of president;" 73% felt that way about Gore.

Citing such lingering doubts, independent pollster John Zogby echoes many analysts when he concludes: "Neither candidate has closed the deal."

That's evident in most of the national polls released Monday. Zogby's tracking poll for Reuters and MSNBC gave Bush a two-percentage-point lead, down from four points the day before. The volatile CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, which had Bush as much as 10 points ahead over the weekend, also gave the Republican a two-point advantage. An ABC/Washington Post tracking survey released Monday showed Bush and Gore tied at 47%.

Not all polls are so close. One other tracking poll released Monday, the bipartisan survey, gave Bush a five-point advantage. A Newsweek survey released Sunday put Bush seven points ahead. Privately, the Bush campaign believes it holds a lead of four or five points; Gore's polling showed Bush one point ahead through Sunday, officials say.

Perhaps even more revealing than the tightness of the national numbers is the breadth of the electoral college battlefield. With both Gore and Bush offering broadly centrist messages, each has been able to remain competitive in states the other party usually has secured by now.

Bush is reaching farther behind enemy lines than Gore: The Texas governor is still seriously contesting six states that have voted Democratic in each of the past three elections--Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Minnesota.

Gore, in contrast, doesn't appear to be a serious threat to capture any state won last time by Bob Dole. But Gore doesn't need to capture any Republican ground to win; it's Bush who has to peel away at least 109 of the 379 electoral votes Clinton won in 1996.

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