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Bush gains mean voters yawning


WASHINGTON -- To no one's great surprise, the public opinion polls charting the presidential campaign have suddenly shifted. George W. Bush is now running even with or slightly ahead of Al Gore in the national surveys and gaining in some critical states.

Although such a shift had been predicted, there is no obvious explanation for why it has happened just now. Some professionals say the glow of the Democratic convention -- and particularly The Kiss -- has faded with time. Others say it is just a reflection of the fact Mr. Bush has gone a few days without a gaffe.

Still others credit the Texas governor with making more effective appeals on such issues as education and Medicare. Mr. Bush has gained ground among women and older voters in some surveys taken in the last week. But that idea is based on the premise that voters are paying some serious attention to the daily back and forth of the campaign, a dubious notion at best.

There is obviously some surprise in both campaigns. Some Republicans had been talking, for example, about writing off Illinois as a hopeless case for Mr. Bush. Now a new poll shows Mr. Gore leading him by only 6 percent in the competition for those 21 electoral votes, an edge outside the margin of error but hardly unassailable.

Political professionals draw two inferences from the volatility of the opinion surveys. The first is that neither candidate inspires great zeal in his followers; there are few voters willing to walk through a wall for either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush. This is something we all have known all along but perhaps had put aside as time passed and the election became more of a reality.

After all, somebody has to make this decision eventually. And, after all, both of them did manage to get enough votes to win their primaries.

The second -- and related -- conclusion that might be drawn from the changing polls is that interest in the campaign is still low enough so that turnout is likely to be depressed. That was the case in both the 1996 presidential and 1998 congressional elections, and it is difficult see what would be more compelling about the choice between Al Gore and George Bush.

If these conclusions are correct, there are some significant implications for the final outcome Nov. 4.

The first is that the debates are far more important than usually is the case and quite possibly decisive. If so many voters seem willing to swing back and forth on their choice based on the few sound bites they see on television news programs, it is fair to say that their minds are still open and they are still susceptible to being convinced. Even if neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore commits some horrendous gaffes in the debates, it is quite possible that one or the other will make a personal connection to the voters by showing an attractive personality. Or one of them may prove obnoxious enough to repel voters.

The second is that the outcome could turn on how successful each party proves to be in turning out its core of support. Ordinarily a low-turnout election favors the Republicans because their voters are more educated and affluent and thus willing to do their civic duty. The Democrats ordinarily do better when the turnout is high, signaling that many marginal voters have gone to the polls. Voters from minority groups, other than Jews, who have been both economically and educationally deprived are the least likely to cast ballots.

Thus, for example, Mr. Gore's prospects in the major industrial states, assuming a close race, may rest on whether black voters get to the polls in large numbers. Low turnout among African-American voters in the 1994 House elections was a factor in the Democrats losing control of both houses of Congress.

So the bottom line is that no one really knows for sure why public opinion has suddenly swung away from Al Gore toward George W. Bush. And no one has any idea how long it will last. The one certainty is that it points to an electorate less than totally engrossed in the campaign and less than captivated by the choice being offered.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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