Weary voters blitzed by gun and abortion lobbies

With 10 days to go, special-interest campaigners are stepping up pressure in swing states - and for some citizens it's all too much
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Steve Evans does not work for a political party, nor for any candidate for election. Yet his computer repair business in Dallas, Pennsylvania, is knee-deep in the paraphernalia of campaigning - signs on wooden stakes, leaflets and bundles of bright bumper stickers.

Steve Evans does not work for a political party, nor for any candidate for election. Yet his computer repair business in Dallas, Pennsylvania, is knee-deep in the paraphernalia of campaigning - signs on wooden stakes, leaflets and bundles of bright bumper stickers.

This is no den of some nutty collector. When not fixing hard drives, Mr Evans is on the frontline of the 2000 presidential campaign, fighting not just for his chosen candidate, George W Bush, but for scores seeking more humble office. The only thing they have in common is that they must be pro-gun.

Mr Evans is the official co-ordinator in these parts - old coal-mining country - for the National Rifle Association (NRA). With platoons of like-minded volunteers, he is working flat out to make sure the citizenry make gun control the issue that determines how they vote in 10 days' time.

Over the coming days, few households in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre areas will not have heard from Mr Evans and his people, by pamphlet, phone call or online. But it is not just the NRA that is blitzing them. Name a special interest in the United States and it is here, peddling its particular message to all who will listen. Those won over will then be firmly told which candidate, in which contest, is the right one to support.

This is the shadow campaign now under way across the US and especially in those states - such as Pennsylvania - where the outcome of the Bush-Gore race is in the balance. As if the advertising of the presidential candidates were not enough - Scranton has attracted more of the parties' advertising dollars than any other city - people here must digest the conflicting appeals of groups on topics such as abortion, the environment, free trade, prescription drugs and - more than any other - guns.

"It is too much," said Barbara Colangelo, who complains that she gets at least one unsolicited telephone call a day from special-interest groups. They even come on Sundays and in the evenings, when she feels she should be left in peace. "It really is intruding on my privacy. There are certain times when the phoning should stop."

When a call came from the NRA - depicting the Vice-president Al Gore as a calamity - her husband, although he hunts, refused to take it. (The Colangelo home is staunchly Democrat.) Mrs Colangelo, who promotes Scranton's tourist attractions, hung up on someone from an anti-abortion league. When a pro-choice group called, she listened. She supports a woman's right to choose and on that basis alone will vote for Mr Gore.

This cross-chatter is highly influential. It mostly concerns topics neither leading presidential runner dares talk about, because they are simply too polarising, such as abortion or gun control. But in a tight contest, issues that trigger voters' emotions could be decisive. Allan Lichtman of the American University, said: "If it's a close race, the emotional issues always matter. Strong ideological issues can make as much or more difference than some issues more typically discussed."

Like the NRA, each side of the abortion debate is deluging Pennsylvania. Naral, the National Abortion and Productive Rights Action League, is spending $5m (£3.5m) here to get out the vote, targeting 150,000 women it considers pro-choice and planning to ring each no fewer than seven times.

The NRA sent its celebrity president, the film actor Charlton Heston, to Pennsylvania. Scranton was among his stops. The battle to send Mr Bush to the White House should be a "holy war" for NRA members, he said. "I urge you to find every gun owner, every NRA member, everyone who treasures American freedom and get them out to the polls on 7 November. It is our duty to be blinded to everything else."

Mr Evans agrees. He ridiculed Mr Gore's claim that he would confiscate guns only from criminals, not from citizens who want to hunt or protect themselves. "I wouldn't trust Gore to protect my dog," he said, confident that the NRA alone will steal Pennsylvania away from the Vice-President.

There are reasons to take him seriously. Pennsylvania has the second-highest concentration of gun owners in the country. Many are union, blue-collar voters who may be swung by this single issue.

But tread over the bullet casings carpeting the state game commission's shooting range south of Scranton and you find the NRA still has some work to do. The nine huntsmen shooting at targets and human silhouettes one afternoon split three ways on how they would vote - for Mr Gore, for Mr Bush and uncertain.

John Hadley, a truck driver for Coca-Cola and a union member, insisted: "Life doesn't revolve around just guns." He supports Mr Gore on most other issues and had not decided who to vote for. John Strelish said he believed Mr Gore when he said he would leave legitimate hunters alone. "All he wants is a 72-hour background check [before people can buy guns]. That's fine by me."

Others at the range, such as George Strein, a mechanic and NRA member, take the opposite view. "Just because someone gets killed by a gun, it's no reason to take them away from the rest of us. Gore has got his priorities all backwards." The bad news for the NRA is that Mr Strein forgot to register to vote.