Now everything to play for in US race

American elections: wavering voters face choice between a charming lightweight and an over-serious heavyweight
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The Independent US

In 80 days' time, one of these greying men - Vice-President Albert Gore or Texas Governor George W Bush - will be declared President of the United States. But after two acrimonious primary campaigns and two festive party conventions, neither can be any more confident than he was six months ago that he will be elected.

In 80 days' time, one of these greying men - Vice-President Albert Gore or Texas Governor George W Bush - will be declared President of the United States. But after two acrimonious primary campaigns and two festive party conventions, neither can be any more confident than he was six months ago that he will be elected.

At each stage of the campaign, one or other has consolidated a lead, only to see it evaporate. Before and after the Republican Party's convention two weeks ago, it was Mr Bush who surged ahead, building his advantage into double figures by the start of last week. Then it was the Democrats' turn to promote their nominee - and while the more authoritative poll results are not yet in, the "instant" polls and the pundits brought good news for Mr Gore.

He successfully established an identity separate from that of President Clinton. His populist programme went down a treat with the left-leaning convention delegates, and his self-deprecation and pledge of dependability - "I won't always be the most exciting politician ... but I will never let you down" - drew approval from television viewers.

In the 51 minutes it took Mr Gore to deliver his speech on Thursday night, he appears at least to have halved his rival's lead to five points or less. The next polls could show Mr Gore within striking distance of his rival, if not quite neck and neck. How the forecasts will look by Labour Day weekend at the start of September is still anyone's guess. This is the point at which, precedent suggests, the voters have sized up the candidates and pretty much made up their minds.

Whether that pattern will hold this year, however, is not at all certain. As of now, the forecasts are for one of the closest contests on record between two candidates who have emerged as increasingly different, but also increasingly evenly matched. Both showed themselves through the primaries to be fighters whose competitiveness grew more ruthless in proportion to the straits they were in.

As the conventions neared, first Mr Bush and then Mr Gore faced the crucial test of "the speech". Public speaking is neither man's forte and both faced simmering policy dissent in the ranks: Mr Bush from the religious right on gays and abortion; Mr Gore from the old Democratic liberal left, and from outside the party, from Ralph Nader's consumer-conscious Greens.

Mr Bush delighted the Republican faithful with a rhetorical competence that few had anticipated - that is, he did not mangle his words - and a depth and authority of manner that dispelled many doubts about his presidential potential. Mr Gore failed to shed his inhibitions completely, but he turned those that remained into an asset. Where Mr Bush spoke mostly in high-flown generalities, Mr Gore offered policy specifics and stressed that this was what being President was all about.

Mr Bush imposed discipline on a compliant party that will do almost anything to win back the White House. Mr Gore pushed and prodded his disparate forces into line, warning that "the powerful" could otherwise defeat "the people". In the end, both candidates acquitted themselves better than worried supporters had feared, but not so brilliantly as to clinch the crown.

For now, it is back to the campaign trail, with one last ordeal, the televised debates, ahead. The provisional schedule is for three presidential debates in October, and one for the two running mates.

Yet again, Mr Bush's intellect and Mr Gore's manner will be put to the test. And yet again, America's voters will be confronted with an impossible choice. Do they want a charmingly affable President, but one who is a lightweight, dependent on officials from an earlier era? Or do they want a man of undoubted seriousness, but perhaps of flawed judgement, who sees the country's failings but may lack the popular touch to carry the people with him?

The choice is real. The electorate's dilemma is that in Bill Clinton America had both: the charm and the intellect; the seasoned executive and the populist; the left and the right; the neophyte and the seer. What the voters hanker after in 2000 is the impossible: a Gore-Bush ticket with Mr Clinton as guarantor, which is why they have sat on the fence for so long. Dream on, America, dream on.

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