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    In presidential race, it's not so clear anymore

    TIMES
    POLITICAL
    EDITOR
    nickens
    NICKENS
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    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    Don't believe everything you read.

    As the race for president enters its final three weeks, much of the conventional wisdom doesn't sound so smart any more. Observations that once were considered perceptive or critical in determining the outcome of the election seem less important than they once did.

    A guide to presidential punditry that is proving to be off-base:

    Republican governors can be counted on to deliver their states for George W. Bush.

    After last week's debate at Wake Forest University, Govs. John Engler of Michigan and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania hustled over to the media center to rave about Bush's performance. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has attended both debates, planted a big kiss on his older brother's cheek after Wednesday night's encounter and later called his older brother's performance "a home run."

    But Engler, Ridge and Jeb Bush are having a hard time holding up their end of the partnership. Bush trails Al Gore in Pennsylvania, and he is statistically tied in Michigan and Florida.

    It turns out governors can't pledge their states like kingdoms to a presidential candidate -- even if they are brothers.

    Gore's selection of Joseph Lieberman was a risky choice.

    As a senator from Connecticut, Lieberman did not bring with him a bushel of electoral votes. He was not particularly well known nationally. And it was unclear how some Americans would react to the first Jewish politician on a national mainstream political ticket.

    Instead, Lieberman energized the Democratic ticket and added some badly needed humor and personality. He and his wife have proven to be a huge draw on the campaign trail, and Gore has been given credit for being creative rather than cautious.

    On stage in Orlando recently, the Gores and the Liebermans seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company. Lieberman called such campaign appearances with both candidates and their wives the equivalent of double-dating.

    How romantic.

    Bush can't debate.

    The idea that the Texas governor was too inexperienced to stand on the same stage with Gore was never on target. He had debated just twice before the presidential primaries, but he had more than held his own against incumbent Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994.

    For Bush, all of those primary debates in Iowa and New Hampshire were good practice. With just one presidential debate left, he may have lost to Gore on the details in the first two but won on style points.

    Bush performed particularly well Wednesday night, navigating smoothly through foreign policy questions and ducking Gore's jabs on his Texas record. Of course, Bush has had some help.

    Gore wounded himself in the first debate by coming off as arrogant, then kept himself in a straitjacket in the second debate in an attempt to be Mr. Nice.

    Performing well in debates requires more than spewing facts and numbers. It demands avoiding major mistakes and projecting a likable personality. Bush is proving to be better at that than Gore.

    Gore could not escape President Clinton's shadow.

    Clinton is not Gore's worst problem. Gore is Gore's worst problem.

    The impeachment scandal still matters most to devoted Republicans who were certain to vote for Bush anyway. It is a concern, but not a deciding factor, for most everyone else. What is turning off swing voters is the vice president's frequent failure to appear warm and understanding and his tendency to exaggerate.

    At an education forum last week at Manatee Community College, Gore went through the motions. Even the small talk sounded forced. During the debate, he sounded most genuine when he apologized for exaggerations and promised to do better.

    Some of Bush's complaints about exaggerations are exaggerations themselves. But the effect has been to turn attention away from how Gore has distanced himself from Clinton and toward the vice president's own shortcomings.

    National polls matter.

    Every day from now until the election, there will be national polls that purport to reflect every hiccup in the race. But the race for president is not one national contest. It's 51 races -- one for the electoral votes in each state and the District of Columbia.

    The goal is to win enough states to reach 270 electoral votes. What analysts study more closely than national polls are the trends in the handful of states that remain undecided, including Florida.

    Gore officials point to the vice president's advantage in large states such as Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Bush operatives direct reporters toward a cluster of other states, such as Iowa, that are counted on by Democrats but appear to be toss-ups.

    Undecided voters will decide the race.

    The number of likely, well-informed voters who are closely following the campaigns and are still undecided has to be small. Most voters who don't know whom they like by now probably aren't going to care enough to vote Nov. 7.

    The more important factor will be whether the Republicans or Democrats prove to be better at getting their supporters to the polls in 23 days.

    Until then, don't believe every assumption you read.

    Unless you read it here, of course.

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