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Tighten Your Saddles! Now It's a Horse Race

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JAKE SCHOELLKOPF/AP, HARRY CABLUCK/AP

Gore and Bush are neck and neck in the polls

Well, it may not be a bounce any more. Twelve days after Al Gore's "I am my own man" speech and ten weeks before November 7, the presidential race is in what the pulse-takers call "a statistical dead heat." Remember those words, "statistical dead heat," meaning all leads are within the poll's margin of error — you'll probably be hearing them all the way to Election Day.

A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken this weekend showed Bush leading Gore 46 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, as opposed to Gore leading Bush 47 percent to 46 percent a week ago. Newsweek's poll (which Gore was quoting for months this spring when it was the only one that gave him a chance) now finds the veep ahead 46 percent to 42 percent. By some calculations, the election's just getting warmed up. Voters at large generally don't pay much close attention to the presidential race until after the conventions — which is now. On the other hand, the candidate ahead on Labor Day generally wins — and that's Monday.

Fortunately for Al Gore, as his bounce recedes, he happens to be on a roll. Having grabbed the national ear with a good performance in Los Angeles, Gore has been bending it relentlessly with his strength: policy details. And while the veep is getting his daily health-care headline with this week's Florida get-out-the-seniors-vote tour, Bush has been mired in number-crunching his own tax cut and wondering whether Dick Cheney could maybe try to grab some headlines that don't involve the campaign's lack of a prescription-drug plan.

Gore's biggest score, though, has been to blunt Bush's promise to "restore honor and dignity to the White House" by making it seem that he's just as good a guy as George W. — well, maybe not as likable, but just as monogamous. Now Bush finds himself in hand-to-hand combat on Gore's wonky turf, and issues have not been his best weapons. For this year's voters, Bush's tax cut seems too big and his Social Security privatization seems too bold. Bush is selling change and Gore is selling incumbency, and now that the veep has made himself at least a believable president, incumbency may be starting to look good.

But America still likes George better, and in the USA Today poll he's regained a 44 percent to 36 percent lead among independents, a crucial group in an election some are calling as the closest since Nixon lost to Kennedy by a single Sam Giancana in 1960. Having been robbed by Gore/Lieberman of his own big convention vision — replacing Clinton/Gore with better men — Bush needs to figure out a new theme with which to sell his policies by the time the debates roll around.

Or he could just nail down Michigan and Floridaů