WASHINGTON -- As the fall campaign sprint begins, Al Gore and George W. Bush are zeroing in on America's heartland for what could be the closest presidential contest in a generation.
New national voter surveys being released this week are expected to show that Gore has succeeded in wiping out Bush's yearlong advantage in the opinion polls. Most recent polls have shown them running dead even, though a Newsweek survey this weekend gives Gore a 10-point edge.
At the same time, the electoral map indicates a considerable tightening in the state-by-state competition since last month's Democratic convention, when Gore's campaign began to take off.
The vice president has chipped away at Bush's electoral-vote advantage, gaining in states such as New Jersey and Minnesota. He is also forcing Bush to spend time and money defending Florida, a must-win state for Bush, whose brother Jeb is the governor.
Typically, close presidential elections are decided by a handful of big states in the nation's midsection. This year's contest could follow that pattern, politicians say.
But the possibility of an unusually tight finish has the campaigns fighting over states as tiny as Delaware, using television stations on Maryland's Eastern Shore as part of an effort to capture Delaware's three electoral votes.
"It's going down to the wire," predicts Republican consultant Scott W. Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and heads a group that is airing anti-Gore ads in Pennsylvania and Washington state.
Unlike other elections, presidential contests are decided by electoral votes, not the popular vote tally. The candidate who wins the most votes in each state is entitled to a number of electoral votes equal to that state's total number of senators and representatives. A majority of 270 electoral votes (out of 538 votes in the 50 states and the District of Columbia) is needed to win the presidency.
Today, in what Gore describes as a "symbolic message" to voters, the Democratic ticket is jumping the Labor Day starting gun with a round-the-clock campaign swing up and down the East Coast and into the Midwest. Such a stunt, usually reserved for the closing hours before an election, shows how far the candidates are going this year to secure even the smallest perceived advantage.
Bush will wait until tomorrow to kick off his fall effort, in a suburb of Chicago. But the Republicans launched a negative ad blitz this weekend in an effort to halt Gore's progress. Democrats countered by accusing the Bush side of desperation tactics and predicted the ads would backfire.
Publicly, Bush claims to be unruffled by the most recent polls. Late last week, he told reporters, "I don't know who's ahead."
Privately, he has his finger on the latest numbers from every key state, building on a base of knowledge gained from working in his father's 1988 and 1992 campaigns.
One Bush adviser, after reviewing the political landscape with Bush the other day, says the Texas governor "knows it's a real tough race."
Concerned about polls
Bush remains optimistic. But he is concerned about polls that show him falling behind Gore in New Mexico, one of the few Southern or Western states that are in play, as well as by the situation in Florida, where Gore has shown surprising strength, according to the adviser, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
"Bush said, 'This is as low as I'm going to be,'" reports the adviser, referring to national voter surveys that put Bush either tied with Gore or trailing by a slight margin.
One reason politicians put so much stock in Labor Day polls: For the past half-century, the candidate who held a clear lead around this holiday weekend has gone on to win in November.
In 1960 and 1980, the race was a virtual dead heat in early September. Some see parallels in this year's competition.
"It looks more like '60 than '80 to me," says presidential scholar Charles O. Jones of the University of Wisconsin.
In 1960, no incumbent was running, though a vice president (Richard M. Nixon) was attempting to succeed a two-term president (Dwight D. Eisenhower). But economic uncertainty hampered Nixon's effort that year, a problem Gore doesn't face after the longest economic boom on record.
John F. Kennedy wound up winning that year with a popular vote margin of less than two-tenths of a percentage point.
The last close election was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter unseated President Gerald Ford by a margin of 2 percentage points. In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened up a 10-point lead over Carter by Election Day.
Jones noted that Gore has been surprisingly successful in redefining the terms of the race, focusing on issues, such as prescription drugs for seniors, that favor him, and putting Bush on the defensive in states with large numbers of older voters, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
It's the first time the normally surefooted Bush campaign has been knocked off course since losses to Sen. John McCain in last winter's primaries. Running mate Dick Cheney is still struggling to gain his bearings as a candidate.
Questions have continued about a lucrative stock option package Cheney received from the Texas oil-industry firm that he headed.
He attempted to put the problem behind him Friday by announcing that he was prepared to forfeit the options if he's elected.
Bush has also faltered in efforts to promote his tax-cut plan in the face of attacks by Gore, who is portraying it as overly generous to the rich.
Bush's recent two-week tour devoted to education, his signature issue, was overshadowed by questions about his failure to offer a detailed Medicare drug proposal (he plans to issue one Tuesday), by the debate over where and when he and Gore would conduct televised debates (stay tuned) and by the news that he had approved a negative ad attack on Gore.
Lost, at least for the moment, are the positive images of inclusiveness and moderation that Bush tried to project at the Republican convention.
In an effort to regain the offensive, the Republicans are filling the airwaves over 17 key states this weekend with an ad that questions Gore's character.
The Bush camp hopes to halt Gore's progress by focusing attention on Bush's sunny personality and his bipartisan style of leadership in Texas -- dimensions that they believe will boost their man.
Democrats insisted that the anti-Gore commercial, which highlights his role in the 1996 Buddhist temple fund-raiser and ridicules his inflated claim about creating the Internet, would repel the very voters it is designed to influence.
Both sides have long expected the fall campaign to be filled with aggressive, often negative, tactics by both Bush and Gore. But Democrats profess surprise that Bush would abandon the high road so early.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is not working for the Gore campaign, said she was startled that the Republicans would try to change voters' minds by attacking Gore on a topic that is so widely known.
"Like there's anybody in the country who doesn't know about the Buddhist temple," says Lake.
The Republican attack might remind voters of the sort of political infighting they rejected in the 1998 congressional election, when Republicans tried and failed to turn President Clinton's impeachment to their advantage, she adds.
With the election two months away, many Americans are only starting to pay attention to the candidates, who have been running hard for more than a year.
Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani says the campaigns have a brief "window" to reach voters before the summer Olympics start near the end of next week.
Because the Olympics could dominate the news until next month, the presidential contest might be won or lost in October, when the candidates and their running mates are expected to hold televised debates.
"The first debate is going to be bigger than the Super Bowl," says Reed, the '96 Dole campaign manager.
Nader, Buchanan roles
Still to be determined is whether Green Party nominee Ralph Nader or Reform candidate Patrick J. Buchanan will get a place on the debate stage.
Neither man is drawing enough support in the polls to qualify under guidelines set by the debate commission created by the two major parties.
As they begin their stretch drives this week, Gore and Bush will be crossing paths in the former Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
That's no accident. The candidates will be spending most of their time from now on in the battleground states where the election will be decided.
In Michigan, traditionally a must-win state for Democrats, Gore has pulled even with Bush in the latest surveys. Some moderate swing voters -- such as working women -- are leaning toward the vice president because of uneasiness over Bush's views against abortion and his tax-cut plan, says Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus.
"Gore still has a way to go," says Sarpolus, noting that he isn't drawing the intense support of union members and African-Americans that a Democrat typically needs to carry the state.
Keystone State is key
Pennsylvania, meantime, might seem like the center of the political world during the next few days.
Bush or Gore will spend at least part of four days there this week. One or both plan to campaign in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Bethlehem and Scranton.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone poll at Millersville University, says the candidates have already visited the state at least 17 times this year.
"I finally stopped counting," he says. "I don't know of any past presidential election when there's been that many visits."
There's a reason for all that attention. If the election is as close as both sides are forecasting, Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes could make the difference between winning and losing the White House.
For months, Bush thought he held a lead in Pennsylvania. But now, as one Bush strategist puts it, "it's a jump ball."