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Bush, Gore Locked in Virtual Ties in 3 Big, Crucial States

Times Polls: Razor-thin leads in Michigan for vice president and in Florida, Pennsylvania for Texas governor underscore the inability to predict next week's outcome.


Each of the three most fiercely contested battleground states in the 2000 campaign remain up for grabs between Al Gore and George W. Bush, new Los Angeles Times Polls have found.

In a vivid measure of the race's extraordinary competitiveness, the surveys found the two men running virtually stride-for-stride in Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania--the three mega-states that both sides agree could decide the election. Gore holds a narrow four-percentage-point lead in Michigan and Bush a matching four-point advantage in Florida; Pennsylvania is teetering between the two rivals, with Bush seizing a slender two-point lead, the polls found. All of those leads are within the surveys' margin of error.

The polls suggest that each state is being whipsawed by the contradictory forces that have shaped this year's campaign from the outset. On the one hand, about three-fifths of voters in all three battlegrounds express satisfaction with both the nation's direction and President Clinton's policies; on the other, voters in all three express significant doubts about Gore's honesty and overwhelming personal disapproval of Clinton.

These conflicting currents--one flowing toward continuity, the other toward change--have left Gore and Bush so evenly matched that each of these states could still tip either way. And with them could tip the election: Analysts in both parties agree that either man is almost certain to be elected if he wins all three of these battlegrounds and likely to win even if he captures two of them. Together, these three states offer 66 electoral votes, nearly one-fourth of the 270 needed for victory.

The Times Poll, supervised by Polling Director Susan Pinkus, was conducted in the three states from Friday to Sunday. It surveyed 401 likely voters in both Michigan and Florida, and 420 in Pennsylvania; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The overarching message of the surveys is that voters remain so closely divided between Bush and Gore in these states that even small shifts in the campaign's last week could be decisive. To take one example: As a national goal, the AFL-CIO is aiming to deliver 62% of voters in union households to Gore. In Pennsylvania, the survey found, Gore is attracting only 57% of voters in union households, who comprise nearly one-third of the electorate there. Even if Gore did not gain another vote anywhere else in Pennsylvania, if the AFL-CIO hits its target, the vice president would be tied with Bush in the state.

Overall, Bush leads Gore in Florida by 48% to 44%, and in Pennsylvania by 47% to 45%. In Michigan, Gore leads 48% to 44%. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader--who's drawing significant support in the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwestern states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin--isn't a real factor in any of these contests: he draws just 2% in Florida and Pennsylvania and 3% in Michigan.

Polls Show Some Common Ground

Some common threads run through all three states. Bush is running extremely well with white men in each of them; Gore is dominating among unmarried voters; and married women, one of the most critical swing groups, divide almost evenly in all three. Bush has a big lead among rural voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan but not in Florida, where some vestiges of the Southern rural conservative Democratic tradition survive. White women break slightly for Gore in Florida (he leads by 7 percentage points) and split almost evenly in both Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Voters in all three states express more confidence in Gore's intelligence, experience and capacity to handle a crisis, but pluralities in Florida and Pennsylvania consider Bush more honest. Voters in Michigan divide evenly on the question.

In each state, Gore is not attracting as much support among voters satisfied with the country's direction as the candidate from the party holding the White House usually does.

Traditionally, the party holding the White House wins about 70% to 75% of voters who say the country is on the right track. Because right-track sentiment is so high, Gore doesn't need to reach that standard to win, but he probably needs to do better than he is doing now: The vice president is attracting only about three-fifths of satisfied voters in Pennsylvania and Florida and almost two-thirds in Michigan.

That shortfall may arise partly because Gore, who has stressed a populist message and insisted his central priorities would be "working families," isn't running as well as Clinton did in 1996 with voters in the upper-middle-class and above. In Pennsylvania, Gore trails among households earning $60,000 or more by only 4 points; but in Michigan those voters prefer Bush by 23 points, and in Florida Bush's advantage is a decisive 27 points.

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