Presidential campaigns often have moments when voters pick up on a politician's "intangibles" and get a strong feeling whether they are right for the times. This year's race has been marked more by a tug of war than memorable moments.
The contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore has swung between personality and character (favoring Bush) and issues (favoring Gore) and back again.
Gore did his best this week to tug the rope in his direction with a forceful debate performance and an emphasis on the strong economy. But the jury's still out. One network poll Wednesday showed Gore closing the gap on Bush, who was slightly ahead, while a tracking poll showed Bush gaining more ground.
In past election years, certain moments seemed to capture a candidate's appeal:
Jimmy Carter promising voters he would never lie to them.
Ronald Reagan smiling reassuringly as he chided a critical President Carter, saying "There you go again."
Bill Clinton hitting the campaign trail with Gore eight years ago on an upbeat post-convention bus tour of the Midwest.
Republican Bush is betting voters will respond to his generally sunny personality, message of smaller government, bipartisan cooperation and promise to tell the truth. "Bush just seems more honest to me," said independent Darin Callan, 30, of Axtell, Neb.
Democrat Gore has countered with an avalanche of policy details, on which he generally has the advantage. "Gore seems more animated, looser. It's like getting a hard piece of toast and putting gravy on it," said Mary Walker, 44, an undecided, independent voter from Kansas City.
Polls suggest voters see the economy as strong and Gore as having the right experience and positions on top issues, but the vice president hasn't pulled away from Bush. Debate watchers rated them about even in their final debate, but thought Bush was more likable by a 2-to-1 margin.
"It may be that's one of the biggest assets that Bush has," political scientist David Rohde of Michigan State University, said of Bush's pledge to be bipartisan. "It's clear that the center of the electorate doesn't like partisanship."
A poll this week suggested about one in seven likely voters is undecided. But Gore's command of the issues and Bush's reassurances of his cooperative spirit may be lost on swing voters.
"We're down to a bunch of people whom we know to be less attentive," said Charles Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. "But I think the public mood is more for what Bush is proposing, working together to develop proposals."
The focus of the campaign was on personality and character before the debates, when Bush appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Live With Regis" and Gore was caught making dubious statements about the cost of his mother-in-law's medication and a labor song he claimed to have heard as a lullaby, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
"That's the point at which people were reminded about Gore and character," Rothenberg said.
His debate performance may have reinforced those concerns as Gore first tried out an aggressive persona, in which he often sighed audibly and rolled his eyes, then a more passive one before returning to the surefooted populism of his convention speech.
Now he will make the economy his centerpiece and drive home his top issues in the sprint to Election Day. But it's unclear whether his earlier stumbles left lingering unease.
"If Gore had had this debate first," Rothenberg said, "Bush would be in real trouble."
People now have conflicting images of Gore in the three debates too hot, too cool and finally, just right. He later likened that to Goldilocks testing the three bowls of porridge.
"Gore was in position to kick butt in the debates, the economy is so good," said Robert Goold, a retired high school principal in Pocatello, Idaho, and an independent. "But Bush helped himself more. It ticked me off when Gore did all that sighing. Gore would have won all three, if he had behaved himself more."
Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.
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