Who'll Have the Last Laugh? the Race Was Hotly Contested from the Beginning, Brutally Fought in the End and Never Really Inspiring. the Mad Dash to the Finish-And How Nader Could Tip the Balance

By Turque, Bill; Brant, Martha et al. | Newsweek, November 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Who'll Have the Last Laugh? the Race Was Hotly Contested from the Beginning, Brutally Fought in the End and Never Really Inspiring. the Mad Dash to the Finish-And How Nader Could Tip the Balance


Turque, Bill, Brant, Martha, Bai, Matt, Rosenberg, Yuval, Newsweek


The high road in Pennsylvania--such as it is--runs from Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh to Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The state always has been disputed territory in war and politics, but never more than it is now, in the final, cliffhanging days of a close-run but unedifying presidential campaign. Late last week George W. Bush was the first one through. Wearing a somber black suit, with Gen. Colin Powell at his side, Bush strutted the stage of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh vowing to bring a "responsibility era" to Washington. Al Gore followed the next day, "up the street," as they say in Pittsburgh. Outdoors in shirtsleeves, he extolled the digital economy at one of its incubators, Carnegie Mellon University, beseeching the crowd to "give me your heart so I can fight for you!" Finally, it was Ralph Nader's turn. He delivered a jeremiad to an SRO crowd at a Unitarian church in the heart of Philadelphia, depicting his foes as toadies distinguishable only "by the velocity with which their knees hit the floor" when greeted by Big Money.

There is a low road through Pennsylvania, too. These days it runs along the airwaves and phone lines and on cable television, and it was clogged with bile. Unapologetically--"We're not backing down," said a top Gore aide--Democratic operatives flooded the state with automated phone calls, telling seniors that Bush was a pollution-loving, coldhearted cad whose Social Security plan would put their "current benefits" at risk. Officially and unofficially, Republicans responded in kind. One GOP freelancer in Texas aired an ad--vastly amplified by news coverage--accusing the Clinton-Gore administration of selling military secrets to the Chinese. Another GOP group, this one with closer party ties, ran an ad using footage of Nader attacking Gore--without noting Nader's even harsher attacks on Bush. "Regular" ads were nasty enough. Democrats continued to portray Bush's Social Security savings plan as a broken promise in the making; Republicans responded with a spot asking: "Why does Al Gore say one thing when the truth is another?"

America was invented in Philadelphia, saved at Gettysburg and ushered into the industrial age in Pittsburgh. But what would Franklin, Lincoln or Carnegie think? The theme song for this campaign isn't "Yankee Doodle" or "Battle Hymn of the Republic," it's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" With a week to go, neither candidate had truly caught fire, and for their sins they were being hectored by Nader, a media-savvy scourge who may just hold the balance of electoral power between princelings of the baby boom.

High road or low, there is no margin for error. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll--and in most others--Bush was inching ahead last week, but he hadn't opened up enough of a lead in the Electoral College count for his handlers in Austin, Texas, to feel very comfortable. Among registered voters Bush led 45-42 percent; he enjoyed a wider lead, 49-41 percent, among likely voters. Most counts put the candidates with roughly 200 electoral votes each, with the remaining 130 or so up for grabs in about 15 states. They include several--Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania--in which the Nader vote could be decisive. In Austin, meetings were earlier, more frequent and shorter. In Nashville, Gore staffers tried to break the tension with daily comedy skits. "This thing could go down to Oregon and Washington on election night," said Bill Daley, Gore's campaign chairman.

Whether or not Campaign 2000 turns out to be the closest since 1960--or 1980--it's already earned a place among the least illuminating and inspiring of presidential contests. The main protagonists are calculating men who grew up in politics--and learned to be cautious in the family business. Both are media-conscious to a fault, and wary of being seen as ideologues on the edges of their parties. They've been desperate to avoid mistakes, and, for the most part, they have done so. …

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