September 17, 2000





As Electoral Vote Takes Shape, Campaigns Focus on Perceptions
By ADAM CLYMER



WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 Vice President Al Gore, who has erased Gov. George W. Bush's lead in most national polls, has also edged ahead of him in the battle for electoral votes, according to independent and partisan analysts. But despite the postconvention trend in Mr. Gore's favor, enough states are either tossups or held so narrowly that the race remains fiercely competitive.

The overall picture is almost a mirror image of how things looked before the Republican National Convention, when Mr. Bush held a slim but decided lead in the Electoral College.

But major states that had leaned Mr. Bush's way, like Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin, have since become tossups, according to strategists in both campaigns, as well as postconvention polls and political scientists interviewed around the country. Similarly, earlier tossup states like Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are now leaning toward Mr. Gore.

Both sides are fighting hard in the battleground states. This week, for example, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee were buying television time costing $995,000 in Pennsylvania, $719,000 in Michigan and $665,000 in Ohio. Television spending by the Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee was $763,000 in Pennsylvania, $632,000 in Michigan and $745,000 in Ohio.

Although the campaigns did not disagree sharply about how most states stood, they offered very different interpretations of what the current standings meant. Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's internal pollster, said: "This race is right now nationally within one or two points. Electorally, we both are starting out with about the same amount of states in our safe column. Then there are 10 or 12 states that are sort of up for grabs, even, or us up a little in some, or them up in some."

Tad Devine, a Gore strategist, argued that the trend in Mr. Gore's favor was continuing. "Gore's advantage in critical battlegrounds has grown enormously and is continuing to grow," he said. "I think it's a different world coming out of the convention. The race is much more settled. Voters have a much more serious take on the race." But, he conceded, "It's a long way from Election Day."

Before the conventions, it was the Bush campaign claiming a lead and the Gore campaign maintaining that there was essentially a dead heat in the contest for the 270 electoral votes that make a majority of the 538 to be cast.

For now, the vice president appears safe in 10 states, with 142 electoral votes, including California, New York and now Connecticut. Eight others, with 97 electoral votes, are leaning his way, with such additions as Washington and Iowa.

If all those states stayed in Mr. Gore's column, he would have 239 electoral votes, and to win he would need to find 31 others from 10 tossup states with 98 electoral votes.

Governor Bush holds commanding leads in 17 states, but only 3 of them, Indiana, Texas and Virginia, have more than 10 electoral votes. The 17 have a total of 132 votes. Six more states, with 69 electoral votes, lean his way, though the margins in some, like Ohio and Colorado, have slipped.

If Mr. Bush held those 23 states, he would have 201 electoral votes. So to win, he would need 69 of the 98 votes from those 10 tossup states.

The financial advantage held by the Republican National Committee over its Democratic counterpart could help him win the tossup states. In some of those states, even ones Democrats think they can win, Democrats are not yet advertising on television. And while the Republican margins are narrow in many states, in some others they are huge. For example, this week's Florida spending showed $1,026,000 backing Mr. Bush and $330,000 on Mr. Gore's side.

But even as the campaigns put differing emphases on different states as they seek 270 electoral votes, their fortunes in the states are hardly independent of the national trends that have favored Mr. Gore in recent weeks. These include his growing strength in how voters perceive his personal qualities and a deepening advantage over his signature health care issues.

John Petrocik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said he thought Mr. Bush's lead in Missouri had declined because "a large component of how you are doing in every given state is how you're doing nationally."

"What determines whether he carries Missouri does not just happen in Missouri," Mr. Petrocik said.

One national hazard for the Republicans is the recent, and perhaps exaggerated, sense that Mr. Bush is in trouble. When Republican strategists say of the Bush campaign, as one did this week, "They have to almost draw a royal straight flush to win almost," then followers may get discouraged, too.

Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster, said one reason for Mr. Bush's decline in that state, and elsewhere in the Midwest, was a growing number of Republicans' "losing confidence in George Bush."

In The Detroit Free Press today, a poll he conducted reported a Gore lead of 45 percent to 37 percent for Mr. Bush. Another factor in Mr. Gore's gains in Michigan has been a sharp drop in support for Ralph Nader of the Green Party.

But in several important states, Republicans were optimistic that a new emphasis on voter turnout would pull them through. Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said his state was a tossup. "I didn't feel that way a few months ago," Mr. Cardenas said. And though he said the state could go either way, he argued that the Republicans' advantage lay in "a much better ground operation, a much more comprehensive ground attack in terms of our phone banks and absentee ballots."

In Wisconsin, Rod Hise, executive director of the State Republican Party, insisted that party members "haven't been as excited, enthusiastic and energetic as they are about this one for a very long time."

"The opportunity that Republicans in Wisconsin have to contribute to a Bush victory in November has really electrified the grass roots of our party here," Mr. Hise said. "The foot soldiers are ready for battle. That is a dynamic that has not always been the case."

But if Mr. Hise was encouraged, so was Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin. Mr. Feingold said, "This surge since the convention has really got me far more optimistic."

"We've made up enormous ground," he said. Agreeing with Mr. Hise that the race was even in Wisconsin, Mr. Feingold argued that Mr. Gore had come through much better as a person, and was helped by health care issues and his emphasis on Social Security over tax cuts positions "clearly in tune with most Wisconsinites."

Two battleground states that appear to have shifted sharply are New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Although Chuck Haytaian, the Republican state chairman in New Jersey, predicted a narrow Bush victory "by 25,000 votes," an independent pollster, Cliff Zukin of Rutgers University, said he thought the state was leaning strongly to Mr. Gore.

Mr. Zukin, director of the Star- Ledger Eagleton Rutgers poll, said that at the Democratic National Convention and later, Mr. Gore "was sounding populist themes which resonate well in New Jersey."

In Pennsylvania, it may have been the Republican convention that hurt more, with the rejection of the state's governor, Tom Ridge, highlighted as an anti-abortion decision by Mr. Bush. Two recent polls have shown Mr. Gore with a double-digit lead.

Ohio remains a battleground state where Mr. Bush is apparently still ahead. Most polls give Mr. Bush leads of two to six percentage points. Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, said, "I think right now it's fairly safe to say the race is somewhere between a tossup and lean Bush."

Though much attention in the presidential race has been paid to the battles for large electoral-jackpot states like Florida and Michigan, the candidates have not ignored the rest of the country. Following are examinations of the status of the campaign in several states where the race is considered close.

In the Northwest, Nader Could Be Factor

Though voters in Oregon and Washington State rejected Mr. Bush's father in both 1988 and 1992 and gave President Clinton a wide margin of victory four years ago, the Texas governor has repeatedly said he expects the Pacific Northwest to be highly competitive.

The latest polls agree, showing Mr. Bush barely behind Mr. Gore in Washington and essentially even with him in Oregon.

Mr. Bush has made repeated visits to the Northwest, most recently last week, in which he criticized Mr. Gore's environmental record but also reiterated his staunch opposition to proposals to help salmon runs by breaching dams in eastern Washington. Such proposals are favored by many environmentalists but are anathema in many communities in the affected region.

Mr. Bush could be helped by a variety of factors, one of which is the strong popularity in some Northwestern cities of Mr. Nader, who drew 10,000 people to a rally in Portland, Ore., recently and who, most analysts say, draws many more left- leaning voters from Mr. Gore than he does from Mr. Bush.

In Washington State, Mr. Bush could be helped by a strong turnout for Mr. Nader, by his stand on dams that could energize a vote in parts of eastern Washington, and perhaps even by lingering resentment in the home state of Microsoft to the federal government's antitrust case against the software giant.

A poll of 500 Washington voters taken for KING-TV in Seattle last week indicated that Mr. Gore was at 45 percent, Mr. Bush at 41 percent, Mr. Nader at 5 percent and Patrick J. Buchanan of the Reform Party at 1 percent, with the rest undecided. The survey had a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.

A separate Washington State survey by Moore Information of Portland, which has polled for many Republican candidates in the region, found Mr. Gore at 44 percent, Mr. Bush at 43 percent and Mr. Nader at 4 percent.

That poll also was of 500 voters, with a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points. But a Democratic pollster, Mark Mellman, conducting a regular tracking survey of 200 voters for an upcoming United States Senate primary, found Mr. Gore in the lead by roughly 10 points.

In Oregon, a poll taken this week for The Oregonian and KATU-TV showed Mr. Nader at 8 percent, leaving Mr. Gore with 42 percent, virtually tied with Mr. Bush at 41 percent. About 8 percent of those surveyed were undecided, and the support for Mr. Buchanan was negligible.

SAM HOWE VERHOVEK