SCRANTON, Pa. - Waiting in the bright sunlight for her husband to collect her and her four huge bags of groceries, Anna Tramantino laughs at the political analysts she sees on television.
"You don't have to be some big expert to see what's going on here," she says, gesturing at the overflowing bags. "People look at everything they've got, and they say to themselves, 'That Gore's not so bad after all.'"
Her friend Irene Kevich, carrying only two bags, tends to agree. "I sort of like Bush," she confesses, "but Anna's right: Why take a chance on somebody new? So I'm thinking maybe I'll change my mind. I'm all over the place."
There seems to be a lot of that kind of thinking going around here in northeastern Pennsylvania these days. Six weeks ago, Gov. George W. Bush appeared to be holding a comfortable lead over Vice President Al Gore. Now, although the objective evidence in opinion polls is sketchy and inconclusive, there is a rough but widespread consensus among the politicians that Gore has moved ahead of his Republican opponent across the state and is running at least even here in the one-time capital of anthracite coal.
There is one published poll showing Gore with a lead of more than 10 percentage points, but those most knowledgeable about Pennsylvania politics tend to discount it, at least to a degree.
"My own hunch is that Gore has a lead of 5, 6 or 7 percent or so," says Terry Madonna, a leading poll-taker from the Millersville University's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. "The momentum in the state is definitely building for him."
The same seems to apply here in the 10th congressional district.
"Gore is coming on a bit around here," says James McNulty, a Democratic former mayor who now does a political program for television. "He seems to have found his way."
Most of the political insiders agree that the context of a campaign conducted during a time of peace and prosperity gives Gore an advantage that is difficult for Bush to overcome.
"Bush," says Jerry Morgan, the Republican campaign manager for Rep. Don Sherwood, "has to make people want to make a change. You've got to have a reason to change," he says, "so what does he bring to the table?"
The answer from the Bush campaign, it would appear, is a fresh attempt to remind voters of what they didn't like about Al Gore before the Democratic convention at Los Angeles that gave his campaign its fresh energy.
Madonna points out that the vice president has always had a favorable context for his campaign - the booming economy - but that the personality factors were "barriers" preventing him from taking full advantage.
There is still some obvious resistance to Gore's freshly displayed charm. "I know everybody went gaga," says a Democratic lawyer who didn't want his name used, "but he's still the same preachy guy, as far as I can see. He's been better lately, but that talking down is so phony sometimes."
The contest here is intense enough so that both Bush and Gore passed through town this week only a few hours apart. And it is intense enough so that local television channels are awash in commercials for both candidates, all apparently financed by the deep wells of money available in both parties.
The voters here are an important bloc for Gore. Many of them are the blue-collar Reagan Democrats who crossed over to vote Republican in 1980, 1984 and 1988 before returning to the Democratic fold under Bill Clinton. But, in common with many Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh, they remain the kind of cultural conservatives who may be swayed on issues such as abortion rights and gun control.
So they are prime targets in a state that, with 23 electoral votes, is the largest of the five states with a cumulative total of 99 votes most likely to be decisive in reaching the needed 270 on Nov. 7 - Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania.
The issues here are a mixed bag. The most volatile is the demand for prescription drug insurance protection for low-income older Americans - a question on which the Democrats, both here and nationally, seem to have seized the high ground politically.
This state and this district in particular have a disproportionately high population over 65 years old - 15.4 percent statewide and more than 17 percent in the district compared with 13 in Ohio and even lower shares in Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois. And these are not affluent seniors who spend their winters in Arizona and Florida.
They are more often like Ben Cardone, a 74-year-old retired pipefitter encountered sunning himself on a park bench. "I don't go to Florida," he says, only half in jest, "because I can only afford a ticket halfway and I don't want to go to the beach in Tennessee or someplace like Alabama."
Then, taking a more serious tone, he adds, "My friends and family are here, so I can get a little help when I need it, but this health insurance thing is scaring everybody."
The "health insurance thing" - the issue of prescription drugs and medical care for the aged - has been exacerbated by a wave of cases of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) dropping Medicare patients.
Democrat Patrick Casey, running for Congress against incumbent Republican Don Sherwood, says there may be as many as 50,000 retirees whose health coverage is in jeopardy. The issue, Casey says, dwarfs all others.
So it was no accident that Bush chose northeastern Pennsylvania as the venue this week for outlining his own Medicare reform proposals. But, like the Republicans in Congress, the Texas governor is being perceived as playing catch-up politics on the health insurance question.
Another topic of volatility here is abortion, an issue with perhaps more prominence in the political debate here than anywhere in the nation. This is the hometown of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, the Democrat most outspoken for years in making an aggressive argument against his party's commitment to abortion It also has been the home ground for a series of Roman Catholic bishops who have been militant in their opposition to abortion.
As far back as 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter flew into Scranton on the first night of his general election campaign only to be greeted outside his hotel by several thousand screaming protesters inspired by their bishop - enough so that the nominee had to be hustled into the hotel through a service entrance in the back.
And in June of this year Gore arrived here planning to hold a meeting at Mercy Hospital only to find that the present bishop, James Timlin, had ruled it would not be appropriate to allow a Catholic hospital to be used as a site for an abortion-rights candidate. The vice president was the victim of poor staff work, but the embarrassment was no less stinging. So on his return visit this week, Gore gave Timlin a wide berth.
Given this bit of history, it was no surprise that Bush and his wife, Laura, called on the bishop as soon as they arrived. Timlin insisted he was not making an endorsement but he posed with the Bushes so the event produced political gold, a front-page photograph and television footage of the cleric and the Republican candidate.
The salience of the issue was further emphasized when the Scranton Right-to-Life Committee published quarter-page ads in the local newspapers comparing Gore and Bush on the issue. Patrick Casey, a son of the late governor, estimates that two-thirds of the voters here are anti-abortion, which he considers an asset, although his opponent Sherwood is equally opposed to abortion.
The congressional campaign could be critical in the Democrats' quest for the six more seats they need to regain control of the House. Sherwood defeated Casey by just over 500 votes two years ago, and it is hard to write a winning scenario for the Democrats that doesn't involve reversing that outcome.
The attitude of the two House candidates toward the top of their tickets may be another indicator of where things stand here. Despite their difference on abortion rights, Casey has been conspicuously campaigning with Gore. Sherwood has been appearing with Bush but has made a point of telling voters here he might want to work some changes in the Republican nominee's Medicare plan.
Finally, there is a what-might-have-been element in this campaign as Bush has slumped. The activists in both parties seem convinced that if he had chosen the state's popular governor, Tom Ridge, as his vice presidential running mate, the Republican would still be far ahead here. "We'll never know," one prominent Democrat said privately, "but I'm glad we didn't have to find out."
Irene Kevich is one vote that may have been lost. "I'm really a Democrat," she says, "but I'm crazy about Ridge. I know the church doesn't like him" - Ridge is a pro-choice Catholic - "but he's been a terrific governor."
But Kevich is, as she puts it, all over the place, and she still has eight weeks to decide.