All along campaign trail, voters are left stumped GOP, Democrats missing majority


WASHINGTON -- Perplexed by presidential politics? Can't choose a candidate?

You aren't alone; 1992 is shaping up as the year of the undecided voter.

A majority of those planning to cast ballots in the Democratic primaries say they don't know the candidates well enough to form an opinion, polls show. And yet, the midpoint of the nomination contest is fast approaching. By March 17, less than three weeks away, fully half the pledged delegates to this summer's Democratic convention will have been chosen.

Even those paying close attention to the campaign seem almost paralyzed by doubts -- about the candidates or their chances of winning in November.

"It's more difficult this time," said Erica Summers, a 39-year-old Democratic voter from nearby Silver Spring. "In some respects, they all seem the same. None of them are perfect."

Republicans don't seem immune to the indecision syndrome, either. In this week's South Dakota primary, nearly one in three Republicans chose "uncommitted" over President Bush, and exit polls found that al most 40 percent of GOP voters might vote for someone other than Mr. Bush in the fall.

A number of factors have conspired to make it harder than usual for voters to make up their minds this year, particularly on the Democratic side. These include:

The economy

Because of the recession, presidential contenders have been unable to raise as much money as in the past. This translates into fewer campaign commercials and means candidates must make crucial strategic decisions about which undecided voters they wish to target.

At the same time, economic pressures have reduced the amount of space or air time that news organizations can devote to the campaign.

Thus far in 1992, the three major networks are giving the presidential campaign barely half as much coverage as they did four years ago. Campaign news has received a total of 408 minutes on the evening newscasts of the three major networks, compared with 742 minutes over the same period in 1988, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which measured TV news reports between Jan. 1 and Feb. 17.

There are also fewer newspaper and magazine correspondents on the road this year.

The candidates

Less coverage has made it difficult for voters to become familiar with a field of little-known presidential hopefuls who started late and had no clear favorite to provide a focus for their campaigns.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas didn't become a national figure until this month, and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey may only now become known as a result of his win in South Dakota this week.

With Mr. Bush looking increasingly vulnerable and few major policy differences dividing the Democratic contenders, some voters say what is most important to them in choosing a candidate is finding the one who has the best chance.

But questions about the character of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the best-known contender, have led a significant number of voters to view him unfavorably, potentially undercutting his claim as the most electable Democrat. No other candidate has emerged to take his place.

For voters who weren't watching closely during the New Hampshire primary campaign, it is extremely difficult to get a fix on the candidates these days, as they flit madly from state to state. A total of 22 states will hold primaries and caucuses between now and March 10.

"It's clear that the voters are more at sea at this stage than they were four or eight or even 12 years ago, because they have less familiarity with the candidates," says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "Given the way this race has unfolded so far, there are now two very important questions that will be answered over the next three or four weeks: how protracted will the process be, and will the process produce a winner by California," where the final primary takes place June 2.

The rules

A prolonged nomination battle was precisely what Democratic leaders wanted to avoid this year. They engineered changes in the primary calendar, hoping to produce a nominee quickly that the party could rally around.

States were permitted to pick delegates March 3, one week earlier than before, and seven, including Maryland, Colorado and Georgia, decided to move up. But as the nomination fight drags on, there is likely to be renewed criticism of the process and renewed demands for change.

Already, some are calling -- as they do every four years -- for a return to the smoke-filled room, the old system of choosing candidates in which voters had little or no say over who the parties nominated.

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale argues that "the solution is to reduce the influence of the primaries and boost the influence of party leaders, who can be held accountable for the personal and political character of a nominee." The 1984 Democratic nominee, who made his case in an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, did not explain how party leaders would be held to account for their choice.

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