The Candidates' Secret Ground War for Votes

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Bush on an unscheduled stop at a senior citizen dance

Barbara Tyler was so fed up with all the political ads blaring from her local TV stations that she switched to a satellite provider — but that didn't stop the flyers that are pouring through her Laingsburg, Mich., mailbox or the pollsters who keep calling to plumb her latest thoughts. George W. Bush and Al Gore have been spending so much time in the Tampa–St. Petersburg area of Florida that they are beginning to seem like neighbors. "In the past, if they came once, it was a momentous occasion," says Hillsborough County commissioner Jan Platt. "Now it's, 'Oh, here they are again.'" The presidential race is so close that every vote matters, but it's becoming clear that some votes matter more than others. "This election," says Bush strategist Karl Rove, "is going to be decided in the last precinct, in the last state, in the last hour, on the last day." No one issue, no one theme, no one gaffe is likely to matter as much as who prevails in a series of Verdun-style conflicts in key areas of targeted states — sometimes even individual neighborhoods. "It's an old infantry expression," says Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a Bush ally whose state is one of the biggest prizes. "Once you take ground, you have to keep it."

This is not the kind of fight either campaign expected. A few months ago, Bush was betting that the lead he had held all year could keep Gore at bay through November. Then Gore came to life in Los Angeles and started dreaming of delivering a knockout blow in the debates. That, aides say, is why the Vice President came out swinging and lecturing and exaggerating in Boston two weeks ago. "He was pumped up," says a rueful Gore adviser. "He thought he could put Bush away that night."

Last week's upheaval in the Middle East might have given Gore another opening had Bush not surprised even some of his own advisers with his adequate handling of the foreign policy questions that consumed half of Wednesday's second debate. Bush showed how far he had come since failing a reporter's pop quiz on world leaders in the run-up to the primaries. His much criticized choice of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as a running mate suddenly looked a lot smarter. And it didn't hurt to have Colin Powell sitting in the debate audience next to Laura Bush.

So now, barring a catastrophic stumble by one or the other in this week's final encounter in St. Louis, Mo., the election moves to what both campaigns are calling "hand-to-hand combat." No issue has gripped the nation this year as Vietnam did in 1968 or the economy did in 1992. So for most voters, the decision will be made on things that matter much closer to home. Which is why, behind Gore's pledge to continue the Clinton economy and Bush's promise to restore integrity to the White House, the campaigns are making pitches to voters that are far more tailored to specific audiences. Gore attacks Bush's Texas record with ads in Washington State stressing air quality; in Iowa, sat scores; in Florida, water pollution. Bush touts his prescription-drug plan in senior-heavy Pennsylvania while bemoaning high energy prices and the lack of military preparedness in Michigan, where the price of gas is a particularly big issue and the per capita population of veterans is among the highest in the nation.

Each candidate's allies are doing the same. Whereas organized labor put much of its money into TV ads in 1996, AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal says, "A much greater percentage of our effort now is aimed at mobilizing voters on the ground — outside plants and work sites, with a lot of one-on-one contact, a lot of phone calls, weekend walks where union members go door-to-door in their communities." The National Rifle Association is buying subscriber lists to sporting magazines, names of people who have sold firearms at gun shows and other information to produce a database that goes beyond its 4 million members. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League boasts it has the names of 2.1 million Republican, independent and occasionally Democratic pro-choice voters — some of whom will be hearing from N.A.R.A.L. seven times between now and Election Day.

It is politicking in the most old-fashioned sense of the word, except computers are doing much of the work that ward bosses used to. At Gore headquarters, data come together in a computer-generated image called the G2K Targeting Map, on which cities and states that present opportunities and require immediate attention from the campaign glow an intense blue. The computer factors in poll numbers, historic Democratic performance, dates of and voter response to previous visits by the candidate, his running mate, family members or other surrogates. It highlights places that may respond to a sudden infusion of ad money or to "free media" generated by a campaign visit. When Gore's top advisers confer each morning about where to spend their ad dollars, where to dispatch the candidate and which ground operations need bolstering, the map — along with twice weekly polls and focus groups in battleground states — is one of their crucial tools.

That's how Gore's campaign chose to ignore possible opportunities in Georgia and North Carolina and make a stand in Florida — a move the Bush campaign initially dismissed as a fake-out. When efforts in Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach began bearing fruit, the Gore campaign expanded its assault to the Panhandle and finally statewide. Now Bush has been forced to spend more than $8 million — better than twice as much as Gore — to try to hold on to a state where his own brother is Governor. Gore continues to press hard in Florida, but a top campaign official worries: "We're tied or up 3% there, but that's a lot of money. At some point, you wonder whether they can overwhelm you. And in a close race, just two points ..." The official's voice trails off.

The Gore campaign's gamble on Florida could turn out to be a brilliant battlefield maneuver, but it could also be remembered as a fatal blunder. Bush aides say the Vice President's concentration of time and money on the Sunshine State has cost him in other regions. "They thought they could fight us on our own turf in Florida," says Matthew Dowd, Bush's polling guru, "but while they were doing that, they let things slip" elsewhere. When the Texas Governor began running ads in traditionally Democratic West Virginia last summer, the Gore campaign responded for a few weeks, then took its ads down as its polls showed the Vice President 17 points ahead.

But three weeks ago, the Gore campaign discovered that Bush had whittled its lead in West Virginia to only 3 points — and worse, that Democrats were defecting in droves. The surge came as a shock even to Bush aides, who made a last-minute decision to dispatch Bush to West Virginia on the day before the first debate. Hoping to reverse the trend, Gore responded last week with an ad blasting Bush on the minimum wage, and the unions are kicking into gear on the ground: the United Mine Workers are considering an Election Eve blizzard of 10,000 phone calls.

In Austin, Bush's top advisers say the number of toss-up states has increased in recent weeks — a sign, they insist, of how well their candidate is performing in traditionally Democratic areas. Bush is tied or within striking range not just in West Virginia but also in Oregon, Washington, Iowa and Wisconsin, each of which Democrats have won in the past three presidential elections. And in Tennessee, Gore's home state, and Bill Clinton's Arkansas, polls show the Texas Governor with a slight edge. "Bush is playing all over Gore's map," boasts Bill Paxon, a Bush lieutenant. "That puts a lot of pressure on the Vice President."

By that Paxon means financial pressure. In addition to Bush's solid debate performance last week, another reason for the G.O.P.'s October swagger is an overflowing war chest. The parties are permitted to spend as much money as they can raise in the general election, and the Republicans have been raising money by the bucket. In the third quarter of 2000 alone, the Republican National Committee relieved eager contributors of $100 million. With a month left, the R.N.C. had nearly $50 million on hand to spend, compared with $25 million for the Democrats.

Much of that extra money, say Republican officials, will go toward waging the ground war in the campaign's final weeks. In both 1996 and 1998, Republicans were beaten by a superior Democratic get-out-the-vote effort spearheaded by the unions. This cycle, the G.O.P. has allotted about $45 million to a terrain fight, more than 21/2 times what it spent in 1996. The money is going toward everything from setting up phone banks to knocking on doors on Election Day to sending out targeted mail. "I do think this mail thing is a problem," frets a top Gore strategist. "They've been at the printing press for weeks." The Bush campaign has even purchased a coveted voter list that identifies Catholic voters — a "swing" category — in key districts across the country. "We're doing things we haven't done in a long time in a presidential race," says Paxon.

That includes storming democratic strongholds. In the next month, Republicans plan to spend $1 million advertising on black radio. The expenditure comes at a time when some African-American leaders are complaining that the Gore campaign is taking them for granted. "Don't play us in the African-American community," Detroit minister Wendell Anthony warned the campaign in a memo last Friday. "If there is a philosophy or a strategy that suggests that we should wait until three days out or until Election Day ... to have people beat on doors (and) get on the radio ... then it is a mistake of the highest order."

While some are complaining of neglect, the airwaves in other areas are being deluged. At Tampa's WLFA, the advertising department asked station management to start its weekend newscast 30 seconds later so it could slip in one more spot after Meet the Press. (Management declined.) But with competing ads sometimes coming back to back, assistant news director Deb Halpern says, "I've actually had calls from viewers asking me to explain commercials. The viewers will say, 'Which one is true?'"

With candidates and interest groups carpet bombing key markets, the question is whether they are informing and persuading voters or confusing and annoying them. At WLNS in Lansing, Mich., not even the daytime soaps or weekend football games offer a refuge from politics anymore. "I'm sick about all the commercials," complains Sandra Bierwagen, 64. That may be why the Republican Party in Michigan considered getting some votes for local candidates by offering viewers a little relief — a spot featuring a babbling brook and a soothing voice-over: "This 30-second interlude of peace was brought to you by the Republican Justices for the Supreme Court."

— With reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington, Maggie Sieger/Lansing, Brad Liston/TK, Eric Pooley/Nashville, John Dickerson with Bush and Tamala M. Edwards with Gore