No change in U.S. presidential race
By Alan Elsner
DANVILLE, Illinois (Reuters): It was heralded as a potential turning point in the 2000 U.S. presidential race, but after the first debate between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, nothing appears to have changed.
Before Tuesday's debate in Boston, the vice president led Bush, the governor of Texas, in a Reuters/MSNBC tracking poll by 46 percent to 40 percent. Three days after that much-hyped event, Gore led by 46 to 41 percent -- a statistically insignificant difference.
"Nothing has changed," said Republican political consultant Rick Davis. "This elected has gelled. There are very few people out there who are genuinely and legitimately undecided."
Davis said Bush performed adequately in the debate and had, as expected, come across as more likable and personable than Gore. But he said Bush needed to do better on the substance in the next two debates to change minds.
"Being a nice guy is not good enough to win this campaign," said Davis, who was campaign manager for Arizona Sen. John McCain in his unsuccessful bid earlier this year for the Republican nomination, which was won by Bush.
The three presidential debates are the last big set piece events of the two-year campaign and the only chance for voters to see the two candidates side-by-side. The second debate comes next Wednesday and the third and last six days after that.
Pollster John Zogby detected no sign of a bounce or slump for either candidate in his daily surveys. In fact when voters who said they favored other candidates or were undecided were asked whether they had definitely ruled out switching to Bush, 72 percent said they had -- a rise of five points this week. The same number for Gore dipped slightly.
Once the debates are over, there will remain three weeks until the Nov. 7 election, to be filled with frantic, nonstop campaigning, but it is difficult to see why poll numbers that have been so stable for so long would change by much.
Gore first took the lead following the Democratic convention in August. Since then the race has fluctuated a little but the figures keep coming back to where they were. For example, in a Reuters/Zogby poll on Sept. 7, Gore led Bush by 46-40 percent. And on Tuesday it was still 46-40 percent.
The figures right now, with Gore leading by a small but steady margin, are right in line with the predictions of seven political scientists' models unveiled at a conference in September, all of which predicted a Gore victory.
Analyst Gregory Valliere of Schwab Research in Washington agreed that Gore was in the lead but said it was premature to conclude the vice president would win. He saw three potential threats to Gore.
"The Green Party candidate Ralph Nader could still make a difference in three swing states -- Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington," he said. Nader is currently getting 6 percent in the Reuters/MSNBC poll.
"Second, the black vote does not seem to be as energized for Gore as it was for President Bill Clinton. They need to get that vote out," said Valliere.
"Third, the format of the second debate, with the candidates sitting around a table instead of standing behind lecterns, plays to Bush's strength," he said.
But the format alone is unlikely to make that great a difference. "Bush has to get closer to Gore on mastery of the substance. If he can be close on substance, then personality could become more of a factor. But he's not close enough yet," Valliere said.
The underlying problem for Bush probably has little to do with his skills as a campaigner or his policies or his personality. It has to do with the unparalleled peace and prosperity the nation is enjoying.
"Bush has to give a compelling reason to voters to make a change. In times of peace and prosperity, the incumbent party has all the trump cards," said American University historian Allan Lichtman.
In fact Bush has run a skillful campaign. He has transformed the image of the Republican Party, wrenching it back to the political center. He has reached out to women voters and to minorities. He has downplayed the divisive abortion issue. He has not made any obvious mistakes.
State-by-state polls show Bush is highly competitive in several states not carried by Republicans since his father won the presidency in 1988, including Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oregon and Washington. He is even narrowly ahead in Gore's home state of Tennessee, forcing the vice president to begin running television advertisements in the Memphis media market.
And as a result, in possibly the closest election since 1960, Gore remains the favorite but Bush has still given himself a chance to win.