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Voters' Still-Difficult Choice

October 29, 2000

The 2000 presidential campaign boils down to this: Either Vice President Al Gore will win because voters like his experience and positions on major issues and because he is better prepared to be president or Texas Gov. George W. Bush will win because he is more likable and believable. National polls indicate that a large number of voters still are not comfortable with either candidate. This potential cliffhanger of an election is only nine days away, and still a decisive number of voters sway back and forth, tracking polls show.

For all of the endlessness of the campaign--the conventions, the debates, the constant exchanges on issues, the millions spent on television ads--this election may be settled to an unusual degree on a visceral level. Each voter will weigh competence, personality, self-assuredness in some individual equation. Gore has vast Washington experience, while Bush says he doesn't trust the federal government. Gore overwhelms people with programs and details. Bush is often vague when asked how he would solve a problem. Each candidate contends he would be better able to work with Congress, but both gloss over the difficulty of dealing with a divided Capitol Hill.

Much of this campaign has focused on Gore's personality and efforts to make him appear less overbearing and more personable. But even in California, a bare majority of Democrats find him personally likable. This week's Los Angeles Times poll illustrates the dichotomy of Al Gore. On every issue--except defense--and every quality of leadership, California voters lean to Gore, often by wide margins. Eighty percent of those polled said he has the experience and intellect to be president; only 47% thought Bush did. Yet Gore led Bush by only 7% when all likely voters were asked whom they would vote for. The difference is that voters like Bush more.

Still, there is no great enthusiasm among many Americans for either candidate. One national poll last week found that nearly half of voters were equally uneasy about both Bush and Gore. Dedicated Democrats and Republicans have of course made up their minds. However, many undecided voters may remain that way up to when they enter the voting both, says Los Angeles Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. They could decide the election. The other great uncertainty is whether supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader will remain committed when they pull the voting booth lever or punch the card. This is one of the great mysteries of the American electoral system. No one knows just what factors cause voters to cast their ballots the way they do.

What is most important to voters? Lower taxes, school performance, prescription drugs, Social Security, defense preparedness, the U.S. role in world affairs? Both men have programs, but there is no assurance Congress will accept them or that the next foreign incident will fit within anyone's strategic plan. Gore is stronger on key issues such as gun control, abortion, the environment and the reasonableness of his tax cuts. Bush has dealt with education at the state level and has done a better job of showing what kind of person he is.

Weary as voters and the candidates may be, this long campaign has proved both candidates' stamina and determination. Beyond that, Bush and Gore offer a choice that is almost apples and oranges, their strengths and weaknesses are so different. This election is less about Republicans and Democrats than about what counts in a president, and that is giving Americans their toughest choice in years.

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