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Gore Can't Count on Electoral Tradition

Voter base: The race is now tight in a large number of states that Democratic candidates usually don't worry about.


JACKSON, Tenn. — The crowd was enthusiastic, the weather warm, and the setting green and graceful when Al Gore stopped by the local fairgrounds here for a rally Wednesday afternoon.

But any skeptics in the crowd could still be forgiven for wondering whether the vice president was entirely sincere when he told the audience, "It's great to be home in Tennessee."

In fact, probably the last place Al Gore wanted to be less than two weeks before the presidential election was his home state of Tennessee. His presence, on a day when campaign aides would undoubtedly have preferred to be in a more traditional swing state, was an uncomfortable reminder that Gore hasn't yet been able to lock down a state that he represented in Congress for more than 15 years.

And Tennessee is hardly alone: From the Pacific Northwest through New England, from the Southwest through the Midwest, Gore is struggling to hold on to states that Democrats had come to consider part of their base in reaching the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. "He simply has been unable to put away states that have gone Democratic not just in the 1990s but in some cases well back into the 1980s and 1970s," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.

Gore's difficulties are part of a wider phenomenon: An unusually large number of states this year are close, mostly because both Gore and George W. Bush are relatively centrist candidates who can appeal across a broad ideological and geographic spectrum. Texas Gov. Bush, the GOP nominee, is having problems securing parts of his own base, particularly in Florida, which Republicans dominated for a quarter-century until Bill Clinton captured it in 1996. A poll this week in Colorado, another Republican bastion, gave Bush just a scant 4-percentage-point lead.

But Gore is facing a much broader and sustained challenge to his electoral foundation: To varying degrees, Bush is competitive in almost two dozen states that Clinton won in 1996, including six states that Democrats have carried in each of the last three presidential elections.

In one sense, this battlefield reflects only the obvious: Bush can't win without recapturing states that Clinton carried en route to winning 379 electoral votes in 1996. But Gore's struggles in states as varied as Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Louisiana and West Virginia also may illuminate the difficulty he's having holding electoral ground that Clinton captured.

"It's a reversion to the more traditional electoral college pattern that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s," Ayres said.

In many of these states, Gore is being squeezed between defections on the left to Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Bush's furious effort to portray the vice president as a pre-Clinton liberal. And that vise is making Gore sweat.

About one-fifth of the Clinton states that Bush is contesting are legitimate swing states up for grabs in every election: New Mexico, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Another two Western states now leaning back toward Bush--Nevada and Arizona--are states any Democrat is unlikely to carry in a close contest.

And Gore appears to have stabilized his position in two mega-states at the heart of Clinton's electoral coalition. Public polls this week showed Gore leading by 7 points in California and 10 points in Illinois; senior Republicans acknowledge victories there are unlikely, but the Bush camp felt optimistic enough to announce Thursday that it would launch an advertising push in both states.

Breaking Down the New Swing States

But even after these states are excluded, Gore is still laboring, to varying degrees, in 13 other states that Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996. These states break down into three distinct categories:

* The Dukakis Six: Gore has been unable to put away Bush in six states that not only voted for Clinton twice but also backed Michael S. Dukakis in 1988: Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota (which hasn't voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1972) and West Virginia (which the Democrats have lost only twice in the last 40 years). Bush's prospects look best in Wisconsin and Oregon, and Gore is strongest in Iowa and Washington, but the vice president today can't entirely count on any of the six, which offer a combined 51 electoral votes.

Local issues are a factor in each state. Bush, for instance has gained ground by painting Gore as an environmental extremist in West Virginia (on coal), Oregon (on timber) and Washington (on whether to breach Snake River dams to protect endangered salmon).

But some common threads run through these states. Apart from Iowa and West Virginia, these are the states where Nader is probably hurting Gore the most; recent public polls in Oregon and Minnesota gave Nader 10% and 8% of the vote, respectively--in each case more than double Bush's lead over Gore in the surveys.

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