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Yearlong Bush lead gone; state up for grabs

Gore takes a slight lead by solidifying support among traditional Democratic Party constituencies.

[AP photo]
The first presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore, left, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush had virtually no influence on the race, a Times poll indicated.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000

The race for president is headed toward a photo finish in Florida.

Vice President Al Gore holds a slight lead over Texas Gov. George W. Bush among likely voters, 46 percent to 43 percent, according to a new St. Petersburg Times poll. But the margin is so narrow that the contest remains a statistical tie just 30 days before the Nov. 7 general election.

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    Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who will campaign on Thursday in St. Petersburg, is at 4 percent and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan is at 2 percent. Just 5 percent of the voters said they are still undecided.

    The poll of 600 likely Florida voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, with a slightly higher margin among some subgroups.

    In Pinellas County, Bush and Gore are tied at 42 percent. The vice president leads the Texas governor in Hillsborough County, 51 percent to 45 percent, but that is also within the margin of error.

    The Times poll, conducted Wednesday through Friday, also indicates that the first presidential debate had virtually no influence on the race.

    More voters called Tuesday night's debate a victory for Gore than for Bush, which mirrors the results of several national polls. But nearly 9 of 10 Florida voters said the debate did not change their minds about which candidate to support.

    "This is as close a statewide race as you're going to find," said Rob Schroth, the Washington pollster hired by the Times to conduct the poll. "You better get your coffee maker working late on Nov. 7."

    The poll also suggests that the issues of greatest importance to Floridians are improving education and protecting Medicare and Social Security. Tax cuts, a cornerstone of Bush's campaign, rank a distant third.

    It was not supposed to be this close.

    For months, Bush was widely expected to win Florida's 25 electoral votes without breaking a sweat. His father carried the state over Bill Clinton in 1992, although in 1996, Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years to win Florida. And Bush's younger brother, Jeb, is in the Governor's Mansion now and remains popular.

    A year ago, a Times poll found Bush leading Gore in a hypothetical match-up by 15 percentage points, 49 percent to 34 percent. Now that lead has evaporated.

    The Texas governor, who campaigned Saturday in New Port Richey and in Melbourne, is fighting for a state most analysts believe he must carry to win the White House. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

    The new Times poll indicates that Gore has transformed the race into a toss-up by solidifying his support among traditional Democratic constituencies: women, African-Americans and seniors.

    The vice president leads among women, 49 percent to 39 percent. A year ago the Times poll had Bush with a slight advantage. Gore also has overwhelming support among black voters, 82 percent to 5 percent. A year ago, Bush had more than three times as much support as he has now among black voters.

    Gore also leads Bush among independent voters, 38 percent to 30 percent. Those positions were reversed a year ago.

    But most important is Gore's advantage among Florida seniors. The vice president leads Bush by 11 percentage points, 51 to 40, among voters who are at least 65 years old. A year ago, the two men were tied in this influential age group that can turn elections.

    Seniors may represent up to one of every three voters on Election Day. They also are sharply divided over Bush's plan to let younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private retirement accounts. That plan is one of the Texas governor's major initiatives, and a majority of every other age group supports the proposal.

    "I am petrified of the idea of privatizing Social Security," said Doris DeNardin, a 72-year-old Republican from The Villages in Lady Lake who supports Gore and recalls the 1929 stock market crash.

    Those aren't the only signs of trouble for Bush.

    In last year's Times poll, Bush had almost twice as much support among men as Gore, 56 percent to 29 percent. In most national polls, the Texas governor has a double-digit lead among male voters now. But the new Times poll indicates that his advantage in Florida is negligible among men, 47 percent to 42 percent.

    The new poll also confirms that a significant chunk of Jeb Bush's popularity is not transferring to his older brother. The Florida governor's job approval rating in the new poll is 51 percent, a bit lower than in other recent polls but respectable for a chief executive mid way through his first term. A healthy 28 percent of Gore's supporters said they approve of Jeb Bush's job performance.

    The Texas governor's challenge over the next four weeks is clear: raise his numbers in central and north Florida.

    As expected, Gore is winning by a wide margin in heavily Democratic southeast Florida that includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Bush is winning handily in southwest Florida, which includes such Republican areas as Naples and Fort Myers. But the race is a tossup in Central Florida, where Republicans must make up the Democrats' advantage in Southeast Florida to win.

    "Gore's got a lot more experience," said Dan Casady, a 43-year-old Tampa Democrat who said the vice president proved himself during the debate. "He's more presidential."

    The race also is statistically tied in less-populated North Florida, where conservative Democrats have voted for Republican presidential candidates in recent years.

    Last year at this time, Bush held double-digit leads over Gore in both North and Central Florida.

    The news isn't all depressing for Bush.

    For example, Florida Republicans are solidly behind the Texas governor. And GOP voters such as Clifford Scholefield, 70, a retired engineer from Gainesville, are more receptive to Bush's proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut.

    "They are just totally out of whack," Scholefield said of taxes. "With our government having a surplus coming out of their ears, I would want to see some of that money come back."

    Bush also is most comfortable advocating his education proposals and promoting his record in Texas, and education ranks as the top issue among Florida voters.

    A superior ground game also could help the Republican.

    With few undecided voters left, the Florida race could turn on which political party turns out its supporters on Election Day. Republicans have more money than the Democrats to work with and Gov. Jeb Bush's extensive network of volunteers.

    In a close race, Nader's presence on the ballot also could benefit Bush by siphoning votes away from Gore.

    But the Times poll indicates Bush's recent attacks on Gore's credibility and his positions on key issues are not helping him gain ground.

    Despite outspending Gore on negative television ads, Gore and Bush have the same unfavorability rating of 40 percent. Jeb Bush's unfavorability rating, by comparison, is 27 percent and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham's is 14 percent.

    Meanwhile, Bush's Social Security proposal is popular but does not necessarily translate into votes.

    Most voters under age 65 support his plan to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts, but a substantial chunk of them are not supporting Bush. More than one-third of the voters who plan to vote for Gore support the Texas governor's Social Security plan.

    The prolonged battle over creating a prescription drug benefit for seniors is more muddled but does not appear to benefit Bush, either.

    A substantial majority of voters support both Gore's plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and Bush's proposal to subsidize prescription drug coverage that would be offered through private insurers and health maintenance organizations. But the support is generally stronger for the vice president's plan than for the Texas governor's, particularly with voters 65 and older.

    While 59 percent of those seniors said they would support a drug proposal like Bush's, 75 percent said they would favor a proposal like Gore's.

    "If George W. Bush doesn't connect to older voters," Schroth said, "Florida is gone."

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