Gore lives or dies on whim of waverers

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The Independent US

Here is what both main candidates in the presidential race know about Pennsylvania: they pretty much have to win it if they are to be given the keys to the White House. They also know that, as of this weekend, it remains tantalisingly up for grabs. And that is because many Pennsylvanians can't make up their minds.

Here is what both main candidates in the presidential race know about Pennsylvania: they pretty much have to win it if they are to be given the keys to the White House. They also know that, as of this weekend, it remains tantalisingly up for grabs. And that is because many Pennsylvanians can't make up their minds.

Barely a day passes when one of the two presidential runners, or somebody representing them, does not pass through it. In the past four days alone, Pennsylvania has played host to George W Bush, the Republican nominee, to his running mate, Dick Cheney, to a group of Republican governors stumping for Bush and, yesterday, to Vice-President Al Gore here in Scranton, in its north-eastern corner.

It is not just the polls that betray a state that is wavering. (Mr Bush led all summer only to be overtaken by Mr Gore after the Democratic convention. Since then Mr Gore's lead has slipped and the likely outcome seems like a toss-up.) Wander the streets of Scranton, an old coal-mining town of 80,000, and everywhere you find residents well informed about the race but still struggling over which way to fall.

Jennifer Boardman, 23, might be the model. She finds herself caught not just between two candidates but also between two families. Her grandparents, with rural roots, are viscerally Republican and expect her to choose Governor Bush. Soon to be married, however, she finds herself lobbied every day, with the just the same passion, to vote for Vice President Gore by the parents of her fiancé.

"I hear a lot from both sides and I know all the pros and cons. But I just can't decide," an almost despairing Ms Boardman says, leaving work at a state-funded school for special-needs children on the down-at-heel northern edge of the city. She liked Mr Bush in the debates but thought he never answered the question. Mr Gore turned her off, but seemed "more professional".

For the candidates, it is a matter of arithmetic. In a race that is so tight, they are searching all across the map for the 270 electoral college votes that they need to win on 7 November. Pennsylvania's share of those votes, 23 of them, is the fifth largest in the nation, coming just behind Florida - another battleground state - which has 25. Bringing those votes into their columns is imperative for both of them.

Mr Bush might need them the most, especially if, as most experts predict, he is going to be robbed of California, once firmly Republican and the holder of the most electoral college votes. And if Florida slips into the Democratic camp, which also seems possible, he will live or die by Pennsylvania.

"In the 1980s, the Republicans didn't need a state like Pennsylvania. Today they do," said Earl Black of Rice University. "Between the Democratic strength in California and the competitiveness in Florida, Pennsylvania is critical." Joseph DiSarro, political science teacher at Washington and Jefferson College, goes further: "He [Bush] definitely can't win if he doesn't carry Pennsylvania."

Theoretically, Mr Gore should have an edge here. For one thing, there are about half a million more Pennsylvanians who are registered Democrats than there are registered Republicans. Large swaths of the state were once heavily industrialised and therefore have been traditionally Democrat. The state voted for Clinton-Gore by almost a 10-point margin in both 1992 and 1996. Moreover, President Clinton achieved his victories here by making inroads into the densely populated suburbs of Philadelphia in the east.

Mr Bush, however, has advantages here of his own. There is a very popular Republican governor, Tom Ridge. He is also helped considerably by the two most emotional issues lying just beneath the surface of the campaign: gun control and abortion. The very large numbers of Catholics in the state like Mr Bush for his comparatively restricted stance on abortion. Moreover, with 1.4 million hunters in Pennsylvania, Governor Bush wins widespread support for his more relaxed position on gun ownership.

The self-described Democrats here also demand inspection. Beyond Philadelphia and Pittsburgh especially, many have socially conservative views that nudge them to vote Republican in the presidential race. These are the people who once earned the label "Reagan Democrats". To find them, Mr Gore need only visit the series of car body shops that line the far reaches of Scranton's North Main Avenue.

"I'm a registered Democrat, but I'm voting for Bush," says Mike Pehonic, a mechanic at AJ's Auto Center. He cites Mr Gore's position on gun control as the main reason. His two co-workers are also Democrats and they also have no intention of choosing the Vice-President. "Gore is too much like Clinton," Mr Pehonic adds, peering into the bowels of a pick-up. "And I don't like Clinton, period."

Mr Gore was not in this part of town; who can blame him? In five such garages, it is precisely the same song. Finally, in Dave's Auto Sales, hope flickers, just briefly, for the Vice-President. "I really don't know yet, I just don't know," sighs Pete Glenicki, stopping his tinkering on a brake drum for a moment. But then he lets his intentions slip. "But I tell you what. I do know that I am not going to vote for Al Gore."

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