The 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign closely resembles a roller-coaster ride. The candidates are gyrating up and down in the polls, both in momentum and in spirit.

Two weeks ago, Vice President Al Gore’s staffers were deciding on decorations for their new offices in the West Wing of the White House. Their man was on a roll and he looked unbeatable. Now, thanks to a couple of Gore gaffes and the indomitable spirit of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the campaign is looking dead even in the national polls. Clearly, either candidate can win.

Experts all thought that the debates would prove to be defining events in the campaign. But here we are, with one presidential and one vice-presidential debate completed, and still the uncertainty remains. It is the closest presidential race in America since 1976.

The two debates could not have been more different. The first, a 90-minute formal debate moderated by Public Broadcasting’s Jim Lehrer from the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston proved to be a contentious affair that settled nothing. Gore scored well on substance, but reverted, from time to time, to the old “nasty” Gore. Bush displayed his good nature and made no major blunders. The polls showed that people thought Gore won the debate, but the polling numbers did not change.

The two vice-presidential candidates met seated at a round table with CNN Newscaster Bernard Shaw and talked about the issues for 90 minutes. The differences between the views of Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman are great. But the civilized manner in which they discussed the serious business of the nation served them both well. They disagreed without becoming disagreeable, something their principals had not done. They both won.

If there is a short summary of the two debates, it would be that the American people believe that the parties got it upside down. They would be happier to choose between Cheney and Lieberman for president, rather than Bush and Gore. The voters would like to see a competent, sophisticated, pleasant man in the nation’s highest office.

There will be two more debates between Bush and Gore over the next 10 days. They come when both the national popular-vote polling and the state-by-state analysis of Electoral College preferences are very, very close.

Remember, it is the Electoral College that elects the president. The 538 votes in that body are distributed to the states on the basis of the number of representatives from each state in the Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The District of Columbia has three votes. The winner of the popular vote in each state is awarded that state’s Electoral College votes.

The two candidates have strength in the states that their party has won in the past several elections. This means that Gore has leads in New England down through the Mid-Atlantic region to the District of Columbia, in California and in the entire Pacific region, minus Alaska. Bush has his home state of Texas and most of the South and West of the country in his column.

There are enough states that are either tossups or held so narrowly by one candidate or the other that the race is still unpredictable and very competitive. The campaigns are waging major battles in the “battleground states” — those that are big in votes and not regularly locked up by either party.

Here is a rundown of the current state of the Electoral College as the campaigns begin their final month:

The Democratic candidate leads in all of the states north and east of Washington, D.C., except New Hampshire (4) and Delaware (3), which are tossups. Many of these states, including New York (33), Connecticut (8), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Maryland (10) and the District of Columbia (3), look relatively safe for Gore. Pennsylvania (23), New Jersey (15), Maine (4) and West Virginia (5) have Gore leading, but by margins of 5 percent or less.

In the Midwest, Gore has slim leads in Illinois (22), Minnesota (10), Iowa (7) and his home state of Tennessee (11). Then the territory is bleak for the vice president until you get way out west where California (54), Oregon (7), Washington (11) and Hawaii (4) are tilting hard toward the Democrat.

Bush starts with strong leads in his home state of Texas (32) and almost all of the states north and west of it. Arizona (8), Utah (5), Nevada (4), Idaho (4), Montana (3), Wyoming (3), North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), Nebraska (5), Kansas (6), Colorado (8), Oklahoma (8), and Alaska (3) are expected to be Bush states. His strength also runs east from Texas, across the Old South, through Louisiana (9), Mississippi (7), Alabama (9), Georgia (13), South Carolina (8), North Carolina (14) and Virginia (13). In the Midwest, Bush is safe in my home state of Indiana (12) and is competitive in Ohio (21).

Florida (25), once thought impenetrable by the Democrats, has tipped to the undecided column and Gore has the momentum there. The other states that are truly too close to call are Wisconsin (11), Michigan (18), Missouri (11), Arkansas (6), Kentucky (8) and New Mexico (5).

In addition to these seven tossup states, major battles are on for the voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, where the volatility of the electorate gives encouragement to both parties.

Right now, Gore has commanding leads in 10 states with 142 electoral votes, and leads in eight more with 97 votes. If all of these states fall into his column, he still needs to pick up 31 more electoral votes from the 10 tossup states that have a total of 98 votes. Bush is safely in the lead in 17 states with a total of 132 electoral votes. Six other states with 69 votes lean toward him at this time.

Both campaigns are throwing money (mostly on television), manpower and candidate-appearance time at the key battleground states. If you live in the belt of states from New Jersey, west to Missouri and Wisconsin, you will be bombarded with media blitzes from both sides. Those of us in the Washington, D.C. area miss the media. The television-coverage area of our local Washington stations extends only to states that are lopsided — Maryland and the District of Columbia for Gore; Virginia for Bush. So we do not get to see the commercials that are at the forefront of this campaign.

Politics keeps getting more expensive, too. As of Sept. 1, spending by all parties, candidates and special interests had topped $2 billion. That is before the splurge in spending that precedes Election Day. In 1996, total campaign spending hit a record $2.4 billion.

Already two records of excess have been established. Presidential candidate Bush has raised more than $100 million, more than three times that of any other candidate. And John Corzine, the Democratic candidate for senator from New Jersey has raised and spent more than $40 million — much of it from his personal fortune.

The schedule

Presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore (90 minutes each):

Wednesday, Oct. 11: Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, North Carolina;

Tuesday, Oct. 17: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.

Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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