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In political campaigns, when things go well, they really roll. When things sour, nothing seems to work.

Currently, we are seeing both phenomena at work. For Vice President Al Gore, life is great. He continues to dominate the agenda and drive the campaign toward his issues. Texas Gov. George W. Bush cannot seem to put one foot ahead of the other without tripping.

The essential problem for Bush is that miscues in his campaign have captured the news and prevented the candidate from projecting his message.

First, it was the debate debate. The Bush campaign picked a fight over the debate schedule. It was a silly issue, and their position made Bush look wimpish. After two weeks of bad press, the campaign completely capitulated and accepted the schedule proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (just as I suggested they would).

Next, came the RATS controversy — a subliminal message in a Bush television commercial. In an ad attacking the Gore campaign, a Bush ad man inserted the letters R A T S for a nanosecond toward the end of the commercial. That spurred outrage among Democrats, advertising experts, psychologists and others. It cost the campaign about four days of message delivery while they ducked and covered this goofiness.

And at the end of these two weeks of hell, Tom Downey, the top Gore debate adviser, received a package from an unnamed source in Austin, Texas, that contained a video of Bush practicing his debate techniques along with a complete book of briefing materials prepared for his appearances with Gore. Downey was smart enough to give it to the FBI quickly. (In 1980, a similar package showed up at the Reagan campaign headquarters. They kept quiet about it, spurring a yearlong congressional investigation.)

The result is a continuing gain for Gore. He has remained on message and made the best of it, while Bush initiatives on the environment, education and his tax plan have gotten lost. The latest polling all shows Gore up about five points in the popular vote and beginning to take command in the electoral college.

When it is not shooting itself in the foot, the Bush campaign is focusing on the battleground states — those states across the industrial belt from Pennsylvania through Wisconsin and Missouri where the contest is the most volatile.

The Republicans have new ground to cover in Florida, a state previously thought to be safe Bush country. With the addition of Joe Lieberman to the Democratic ticket, it has become a very close contest. George W.’s brother Jeb is the governor of Florida and he is providing as much support as possible. But Florida needs resources from the campaign — candidate time and advertising money — that had not been in the early planning.

California seems to have some magnetic appeal to Bush. He spent three valuable campaign days there last week, even though he is down by more than 10 points in every credible poll in that state. I guess he believes the largest state in the union, with 54 electoral votes, cannot be ignored. That is exactly 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. But W. should forget it and get into Ohio, Michigan and Illinois where he has better chances of winning.

Gore is courting the pivotal industrial states. He is lucky in that Lieberman, his running mate, has star appeal in Florida, California and New York. Lieberman can work those states as effectively as Gore and keep the heat on Bush in those critical regions. Republican Vice Presidential nominee Dick Cheney has no comparable magic. He appeals to the core conservative Republican voter, but has little to offer to independents.

Both candidates have captured their core voters. Gore’s were more elusive, but since the Democratic convention, the elements of the Democratic coalition have rallied behind the candidate.

The advantage on issues is now Gore’s. His control of the agenda is paying off big-time, with undecided voters now looking closely at the issues he champions. Top on the agenda is now the economy — a big boost for Gore — followed closely by health care.

Voters now give Gore the credit, with President Bill Clinton, for positive economic conditions, and his plan for greater government interest in health care is winning favor over the Bush plan to provide health insurance privately. Bush’s focus on national security and defense has not captivated voters.

Most importantly for Gore, people have begun to like him: His favorable ratings have finally topped those of Bush. This is very important.

In addition to the presidential race, there are elections for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and for one-third of the Senate. These elections are discrete contests, where local issues and factors determine the outcomes.

Control of both the House and Senate is in play this year. The Republicans control the House by a mere 221-to-212 margin (one independent votes with the Democrats) after the death of a Virginia Republican this month. In the Senate, their margin is also slim, 54 to 46.

The House has been the focus of attention for Democrats for two years, since they made significant strides in the last election. With Dick Gephardt heading the drive, they have mounted a two-year-long campaign to win the seats needed to make Gephardt the speaker.

To analyze congressional races, we look at those seats that appear to be safely in the hands of one party or the other, those where one candidate appears to be safe, but not quite, those that are leaning slightly to one candidate, and then those that are too close to call. For the House, it is too close to call.

The Senate was not an early Democratic target. The Republicans had a 10-seat margin and those seats that were being contested seemed to favor the Republicans. But that has changed. The death of Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdale brought Democrat Zel Miller to the Senate and he is favored to be re-elected.

The best guess — and it is a guess — is that the Democrats will pick up a seat or two in the Senate, but fall short of the number they need to take control.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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