Presidency could be decided by 100,000 votes

The closest race for two generations enters final stretch with frenzied coast-to-coast campaigning as Clinton is called in to boost Democrats
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The Independent US

The most exciting US presidential race for two generations enters the home straight today with the two candidates storming neck and neck into the last frantic week of campaigning. After the best part of two years on the trail, Vice-President Al Gore and the Governor of Texas, George W Bush, are chasing each other coast to coast and border to border in an effort to capture the last wavering voters and maximise turn-out in a contest that could be decided by less than 100,000 votes nationwide.

The most exciting US presidential race for two generations enters the home straight today with the two candidates storming neck and neck into the last frantic week of campaigning. After the best part of two years on the trail, Vice-President Al Gore and the Governor of Texas, George W Bush, are chasing each other coast to coast and border to border in an effort to capture the last wavering voters and maximise turn-out in a contest that could be decided by less than 100,000 votes nationwide.

Both campaigns are sharpening their rhetoric, scaring and seducing by turns. The airwaves of marginal states are saturated with commercials for the candidates and their causes. And with the imminent arrival of President Clinton to stump for his deputy, the Bush camp is upping the ante. The best guarantee for our children, said Mr Bush at his weekend rallies, "is a President who behaves responsibly in office".

If the mood of the rival camps determined the outcome, George W Bush would be declared the victor already. Exuberant and confident at his Mid-Western rallies on Saturday, he spent yesterday recording interviews and adverts before a whistle-stop California tour from today.

A hatchet-faced Mr Gore, meanwhile, is traipsing the Mid-Western battlegrounds of Michigan and Wisconsin before flying west himself in a mission he would not have wished for - to halt the trend to Mr Bush. While the latest opinion polls give the edge to Mr Bush nationally, the margin is just a few points. The Reuters/Zogby daily poll has the two contenders just one point apart (44-43).

Three weeks ago, just 11 states were regarded as marginal; now that number is 18. As many as 158 of the 538 electoral college votes that determine the presidency are still in play. And it is not just the traditional "swing" states of Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania that are in contention, but a whole slew of states in further-flung parts of the nation. This has forced the candidates to stop off in places they might never have expected to set foot in, searching for those few votes that could make the difference.

Mr Gore's situation is the less enviable. Larger states, such as Pennsylvania and Illinois, and even California, which he would have hoped to have sewn up months ago, have suddenly tightened, requiring emergency attention.

He has also been forced to spend a precious 24 hours campaigning in his home state of Tennessee - where he lags behind Mr Bush, according to a new poll, by as much as 11 points. Traditionally Democratic states such as Washington, Oregon, Minnesotat and West Virginia are still in contention. The first three of these highlight Mr Gore's other difficulty: the unexpectedly strong showing by Mr Bush in these traditionally Democratic states has brought the "Nader factor" into play. The veteran consumer campaigner, Ralph Nader, is running as the Green Party's presidential candidate and commanding a steady 5 per cent in most polls.

On the West Coast and in the northern states, environmental concerns are swelling his ranks further, to the point where Mr Gore is now reluctantly admitting that Mr Nader poses an indirect threat. Current estimates suggest Mr Nader could cost Mr Gore between four and eight states.

So worried were some on the political left last week that a number of Mr Nader's own erstwhile supporters tried to persuade him to give up his campaign, at least in those states at risk. Complicating the overall picture still further is that by no means all marginal states are showing a trend to Mr Bush. Mr Gore remains ahead in Florida, a state whose loss to Mr Bush would be as embarrassing as the loss of Tennessee for Mr Gore. Without Florida, common wisdom has it, no Republican can win the White House.

This year, though, much common wisdom is being confounded. In an extraordinary comment on the sharpness of the battle for votes, the end of last week found both presidential candidates in West Virginia, which boasts only 5 electoral college votes.

The Democrats are comparing this year's election with the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy contest for the closeness of the presidential vote, telling Democrats that just one vote per electoral precinct - the average margin of Kennedy's victory - swung the White House then and could do again. In other words, every vote this year could make the difference. Getting out the black vote and the trade union vote has become the Democrats' priority.

This year's election is undoubtedly rare in the depth of uncertainty among voters, as reflected in the volatility of the opinion polls, but it may be unique in terms of quite how much is at stake. Not only are there two presidential candidates whose policies derive from very different philosophies, but almost every elected component of the American system of government is also in play.

There are exceptionally close Senate races in as many as a dozen states, including New York, where Hillary Clinton is trying to keep Daniel Pat Moynihan's seat for the Democrats.

In the House of Representatives as many as 30 seats could change hands. With the Republican majority in both houses so small (54-46 in the Senate, 222-210 in the House), just a few seats could determine control of both houses of Congress, and the margins in many of these races are just as slim as they are for the presidency.

The complexion of Congress will, to a large extent, determine what the next president can achieve. In the course of his presidency, though, Mr Clinton's successor could also have the power to select as many as four places on the Supreme Court and the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. Bush country or Gore country, the next four years could make the US a very different place.

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