George W. Bush's performance in the first debate was widely criticized, but new polls show that while Bush may have lost a battle, he is winning the war. The latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows Bush ahead of Al Gore 49 to 41 percent, the Texas governor's biggest lead since his Republican Convention bounce. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has 4 percent, and the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan still lags behind at 1 percent. The survey has a four-point margin of error.
What makes the poll particularly bad news for Gore is that this same survey showed him ahead by 11 points just three days earlier. Polls tend to be more volatile in the last weeks of a campaign, with a significant number of voters switching their preference. However, a likely factor in Gore's slip is revealed in the latest favorability ratings. While voters liked Bush a little more after the first debate, they liked Gore less. The vice president's unfavorable rating went from 36 percent in the last week of September to 43 percent after his first debate with Bush. The Texas governor's unfavorable rating dropped from 36 percent to 35 percent over the same period.
Too close to call
Though other surveys show Bush gaining ground, they still have the race at a dead heat. The latest Reuters/MSNBC poll shows Gore with 44 percent to Bush's 42 percent. Nader earned 5 percent, Buchanan held on to 1 percent and the Libertarian Party candidate, Harry Browne, registered 1 percent. Newsweek's most recent poll shows Gore at 44 and Bush at 41 percent, with Nader scoring 5 percent and Buchanan 2 percent. Both surveys have a three-point margin of error.
Playing nice in New York
In another close contest, the first lady faced Rick Lazio in their second New York Senate race debate on Sunday. Reuters reports that both candidates stayed away from aggressive personal attacks. Lazio in particular, who had been blasted for being too sharp and negative in the first debate, kept his zingers to a minimum, and concentrated instead on portraying himself as a moderate. "I think we need somebody in the majority party who can work well with others, who can cross party lines, who can be independent and who's got the ability to make sure that New York gets its fair share," Lazio said. "I think I'm that person."
The debate wasn't without its moments of confrontation. The first lady went after Lazio for backing off a no-soft-money pledge that he had pressed Clinton to agree to just two weeks ago. "Last month, Mr. Lazio said that this was an issue of trust and character. He was right," Clinton said. "And if New Yorkers can't trust him to keep his word for 10 days, how can they trust him for six years?" Lazio shot back, "Mrs. Clinton, please, no lectures from Motel 1600," alluding to questions about Clinton donors being rewarded with White House sleepovers.
The dummy vs. the liar
Unlike the New York race, the presidential contest is getting nastier as the polls get closer. The Associated Press reports that the candidates are going for the mud, with surrogates of Bush and Gore trading barbs over the weekend, including a nasty exchange on NBC's "Meet the Press." "What you have ... is a Republican campaign that is out of gas and out of ideas," said Gore advisor Paul Begala. "Your candidate is a serial exaggerator," Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, shot back. "This is a man who has difficulty telling the truth." On CNN's "Late Edition," Gore man Mark Fabiani said that Bush's explanation of his tax policy to one Florida audience "was incoherent, he was babbling." Karen Hughes, Bush's communications chief, told "Fox News Sunday" that "the vice president has consistently and repeatedly made up things, exaggerated, embellished facts."
Meanwhile, the voices within the campaigns that once called for a high-minded race have mostly quieted. But Democratic running mate Joseph Lieberman lamented the lowering of the campaign's tone. "This nonsense is not what this campaign should be about," he said.
Lieberman's desire to keep the race a fair fight won't stop him from taking shots at Bush's record as governor. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Connecticut senator will embark on a "Failed Leadership Tour" of Texas this week, where he will highlight examples of gaps and shortcomings in the governor's record. The Gore campaign denies that the tour constitutes a personal attack. "Joe is going to be working to get out factual information about Governor Bush's record in Texas," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway. We believe it is a record of failed leadership." The Bush campaign accused the Gore team of playing a broken record with its critique of Texas policies. "The facts speak for themselves," said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett.
Boys will be boys
When Bush calls Gore a jerk and Gore calls Bush an idiot, they're both right, according to Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow. "With each week that passes," he writes, "it becomes clearer that neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore is a satisfactory candidate for President of the United States." Morrow says that the contrast between the presidential candidates' snipefest and the cordial, substantive contest between Lieberman and GOP veep pick Dick Cheney made many Americans want to flip the tickets. "In neither Lieberman nor Cheney does one detect the frantic inner neediness of Al Gore ... or the dangerous vacuity of George W. Bush," Morrow declares.
The sad spectacle is enough to make Americans dream of John McCain and Bill Bradley, he asserts. But the regret comes too late. "We cannot have a better choice now. It's a disgusting situation. If the Constitution permitted Bill Clinton to run for a third term, he would, sullied as he is, win the election," Morrow concludes. "The stupid thing is that he would deserve it, and so would we."
The mice that roared
Coincidentally, as the candidates' stature among the voting public shrinks, the states they're fighting for grow smaller and smaller. The Washington Post reports that the only big states left to battle over are Pennsylvania and Florida, making second- and third-tier states like New Mexico, Wisconsin and Missouri more crucial than ever. In addition, the jousting between the two major party candidates has made some traditionally safe states more competitive. Democratic West Virginia and Republican New Hampshire are both up for grabs this year. What's more, Nader is having a destabilizing effect in the Pacific Northwest, keeping the once solidly Democratic Oregon and Washington in play.
On the trail
Buchanan: Colorado, Georgia and California.
Nader: To be announced.
Presidential poll positions
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