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Bush, Gore Can't Miss a Beat in Battle for Heartland

Campaign: Undecided Midwest voters may well choose the next president in most unpredictable race in recent years.


ST. LOUIS — Until recently, Ed Kirby's mind was made up: He was backing George W. Bush for president. He liked the Texas governor's "strong morals" and valued the extensive Washington experience his running mate, Dick Cheney, brought to the Republican ticket.

But lately Kirby finds himself "teetering" toward Democrat Al Gore, who has struck a pleasing note with his promise to protect Social Security and efforts to distance himself from President Clinton.

"Before I was decided," Kirby said. "Now I'm undecided."

On this Labor Day weekend, at the traditional start of the fall campaign, the Ed Kirbys of America have made this the closest, most unpredictable presidential race in 20 years.

And it is undecided voters such as Kirby, living in Missouri and a handful of other Midwestern states, who may well choose the next president.

After trailing in polls for much of the last year--often by substantial margins--Vice President Gore has pulled even or ahead of Bush in national surveys, thanks to his selection of running mate Joseph I. Lieberman and a big boost from the Democratic convention.

Bush and Gore are also running neck and neck in several key states. And it is these individual contests that truly matter, as the candidates vie to garner, state by state, the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House.

Bush and Gore can each count on the support of certain regions. But their contest will almost surely be decided in the proverbial heartland, in the broad-shouldered states of Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri. Here, industrial might and agricultural plenty built great cities, thousands of small towns and now hundreds of suburbs. Their competing interests prevent any one party from dominating.

"This is where presidential elections play out," said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster in Washington, D.C. "When we're watching [the returns] on election night, it's going to be the Midwest that we turn to and say, 'What happened in Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois?' "

He makes that prediction with good reason. Missouri has backed the winner in every presidential election of the 20th century, save 1956. Illinois went with the winner in all but two of those races, in 1916 and 1976. In the last few elections, Michigan and Ohio have not only gone with the winner but have come close to--and sometimes even matched--the vote each candidate received nationally.

"Tell me what happens in those four states," said Hart, "plus New Jersey and Pennsylvania and I'll tell you who wins the presidency."

Starting out, Bush and Gore can rely on a base of support from their partisan redoubts. Bush is sure to sweep most of the South, much of the West and all the states on a straight line from Texas up through North Dakota. Gore has a near lock on the two biggest prizes, New York and California, and a strong foothold in New England.

There are exceptions, of course. New Hampshire and Oregon are tossups in regions that have tilted toward Democrats in recent presidential campaigns.

In the South, Bush will have to fight to carry Gore's home state of Tennessee, Arkansas may go Democratic and Georgia could grow competitive. Florida, while leaning Republican, is still up for grabs.

But the bulk of the candidates' time and resources will probably be spent here in the Midwest, a perennial battleground largely because its major industrial states so closely reflect the nation as a whole.

"The black-white split, the urban-rural-suburban split, the economic mix, all are pretty typical," said Terry Jones, who teaches political science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. "North and South, East and West, we're all of them."

Indeed, the Midwest is home to both the car- and hog-producing capitals of the nation, the corporate headquarters of Playboy Enterprises and the maker of John Deere tractors.

Some of the nation's largest urban black communities--and most reliable Democratic precincts--flourish in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and other big cities. And yet vast stretches of the rural Midwest--"downstate" in Illinois and "outstate" in Michigan and Missouri--are virtually all-white and staunchly Republican.

Significantly, neither party has laid any lasting claim to the burgeoning suburbs, which are more typical of the socially moderate, fiscally conservative enclaves found along the two coasts.

"Both parties enjoy certain advantages they can build on" statewide, said Jeff Manza, a sociology professor and political analyst at Chicago's Northwestern University. "That's what makes these states more competitive than other parts of the country."

There is little of the visceral anti-government sentiment that is so prevalent in the heavily Republican South and many of the Sun Belt suburbs. Here, government has been a helping hand to farmers, civil servants and the immigrants crowding the cities.

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