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At long last, it is time for the U.S. presidential campaign of 2000 to begin. The Labor Day weekend (Sept. 2-4) marked the unofficial end of summer, the start of school and the traditional kickoff of the political campaigns.

This election differs from those of the recent past in that it marks the first time since the 1980 Carter-Reagan race that the winner has not been clear on Labor Day. Either candidate can still win this election.

A couple of months ago, I suggested that I would rather have the Bush position than the Gore position in this race. I saw Bush as having developed a more positive image, an attractive campaign theme and some high ground on key issues. Gore, on the other hand, seemed not to have improved himself during the primary stage of the election. Neither he nor his campaign was focused.

But what a difference a summer makes. Gore had a marvelous August. He has dominated the issue debate since his convention and he has Bush on the defensive on a number of key points.

The polls have been bouncing all summer, but, except for a post-convention bounce, the trend line for the Republican candidate has been all downhill. As of Aug. 31, according to a CBS News poll, Gore led Bush 49 percent to 39 percent.

The race is far from over, but still, if I had my pick, I would rather be in Gore’s shoes than Bush’s right now. The campaign to date has really been a matter of positioning the candidates for the race down the stretch to Nov. 7. Since the two conventions, the Gore campaign has been superb. The candidate has a carefully selected set of issues that favor his candidacy with the voters, and he has concentrated on those issues. He has stayed on message. Bush, on the other hand, has been regularly distracted from his issues. Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Lieberman has proven to be a strategic plus for Gore. His Republican counterpart, Dick Cheney, by contrast, has contributed little to the Bush campaign and his personal financial entanglements have become a distraction.

The schedules of the candidates and advertising purchases are now beginning to focus on the states where they believe the election will be decided. At this early stage, both are working to solidify their strong areas and testing their appeal in uncommitted states.

The addition of Lieberman to the Democratic ticket has redefined the geography of the race somewhat. With Lieberman on board, the Northeast, already a positive area for Gore, becomes more so. That includes New York and New Jersey. Lieberman’s appeal to Jewish voters in Florida has made this state a tossup — probably still leaning to Bush, but a complete flip from last spring. Michigan and Illinois are also more positive, albeit still quite competitive, since the Lieberman acquisition.

Bush has a solid geographic phalanx from the mountainous West to the Mississippi River and across the Old South. Gore holds strength in the Pacific West and the Northeast, with the states running across the center of the nation from Missouri and Wisconsin and east through New Jersey.

As well as fighting on the geographic battleground, the candidates are targeting their appeals to certain demographic groups. Bush is stronger among men (48 percent to 40 percent), while women have begun returning to Gore in the kind of percentages that the Democrats have enjoyed in the past two elections (54 percent to 34 percent).

Gore has reclaimed the Democrats’ traditional lead on issues like Social Security and education — leads that had evaporated after the Republicans’ convention in Philadelphia. In addition, the Democrats have reinvigorated the importance of health care and Social Security as national issues. After the Republican convention, health care had fallen to fourth on a list of important issues. Republicans — with Cheney leading the way — hold a slight lead in their handling of national defense issues.

The answer to the question “does it matter who is president?” has changed. Now, when voters are asked whether they think there are real differences between the candidates, 81 percent say yes. And by a margin of 3 to 1, those voters see the biggest difference in the candidate’s positions on the issues, not their personalities.

For the past two elections, minor parties have had a significant influence on the voters. At this time in 1992, Ross Perot, running as an independent candidate, was locked in a close three-man race with George Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1996, as leader of the Reform Party, Perot claimed 7 percent of the total vote.

Perot’s party has since imploded in the war between forces aligned with him and those supporting Pat Buchanan, the former Republican who became a Reform Party member to seek its nomination for the presidency. After a failed attempt to unite the party at a convention last month in California, the two factions are spending more time in the courtroom than on the campaign trail.

The convention was a unique event in American politics. After a melee at the opening, the two factions split off and held separate sessions in the same building, one nominating Buchanan, the other John Hagelin, already the nominee of the Natural Law Party. After a federal judge ducked deciding who was the rightful Reform Party nominee, the two campaigns are now attempting to get their respective candidates on ballots in each state — and they await the decision of the Federal Election Commission on who gets the $12 million in federal funds that are allotted to their campaign, thanks to Perot’s showing in 1996.

With Perot absent and his old party in shambles, the only credible third force in the race is Ralph Nader, the longtime consumer activist who is running as the nominee of the Green Party. Nader is waging a very visible campaign — impressively so, since he has raised and spent less than $1 million so far. He makes news. This week he did so by winning the endorsement of a labor union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and visiting the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to castigate capitalists.

Nader has targeted union members, consumers and environmentalists. Those are the same groups that have been the core of Gore’s support. Nader has been drawing from 5 percent to 8 percent of the total vote in the polls, and in some states, his votes could be important in determining the Bush-Gore winner. His votes come almost entirely out of the Gore column, so the Democrats have to be concerned. They had expected Buchanan’s candidacy to take votes from Bush and balance the third-party drain, but Buchanan has become a nonfactor.

Since the 1960 campaign debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the debates between the presidential candidates have been an important and influential factor in American presidential campaigns. They probably will be again this year, but so far, the Republican campaign team has been slow to agree to any joint appearances.

The Presidential Debate Commission has organized four debates for the fall, three for the presidential candidates and one for the vice-presidential candidates. The schedule for the presidential debates is: Oct. 3 in Boston, Mass., Oct. 11 in Winston Salem, N.C. and Oct. 17 in St. Louis, Mo. The vice-presidential candidates are invited to debate on Oct. 5 in Danville, Ky.

The Republican team is balking. Bush has made clear his preference for relatively informal debates, such as the session during the Republican primaries in which the candidates sat around a table with talk-show host Larry King. Bush therefore hasn’t accepted debate offers yet, while Gore has accepted the commission’s three October debates and others.

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