Satisfaction with country's direction, concerns about candidates a volatile mix

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Voters are generally satisfied with the country's direction but uneasy about presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, part of the reason polls are still seesawing so close to Election Day.

Almost a fourth of the nation's voters are ``swing voters,'' meaning they are only loosely committed and could still change their minds, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That factor is causing the national polls to shift, most recently from a narrow Bush lead to a neck-and-neck race in the closest presidential election in 40 years.

State polls are also fluctuating. Bush has edged ahead in a Florida, where the two were virtually deadlocked, according to a poll released Wednesday. And in Illinois, Gore has regained the advantage. A California poll shows Gore's lead at 8 points in a state where he had a double-digit lead last month.

``It does appear that voter opinions are fluid and changing on a regular basis,'' said Jim Kane, chief pollster for the Florida Voter poll out Wednesday. ``And state polls are always a little bit behind the national polls, which are measuring small changes as they happen, while state polls are taken over finite periods.''

Image problems _ Gore's personality and Bush's inexperience in national politics _ are making it tough for either candidate to break the deadlock.

``Gore's personality has become a bigger negative than it was in September,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. ``You would have to point to the debates as a cause of that.''

But Kohut said Bush has yet to close the deal with a substantial number of voters.

``While Bush has made some progress in personal terms, he hasn't made much of a dent in gaining voter confidence on the top issues,'' Kohut said.

Several recent polls have suggested Democrats have more work to do to get their voters to the polls because of lower enthusiasm for Gore.

Gore still leads on top issues like health care, Social Security and the economy. But Bush is ahead on personal traits _ honesty, likability, willingness to take an unpopular stand and having new ideas.

Asked who is best described by the phrase ``typical politician,'' 45 percent picked Gore and 29 percent picked Bush. The two were about even on this measure in September.

Most voters, 54 percent, are satisfied with the way things are going nationally _ as high as the satisfaction level has been in Pew polls all year.

Some analysts say that contentment has made voters more complacent. Meanwhile, they are hearing campaign criticisms leveled at both candidates.

Three-fourths had heard the charge that Bush cares more about the rich, and three in 10 said that made them less likely to support him. Almost that many have heard criticism of Bush's record in Texas on issues like health care and the environment, and about three in 10 said that made them less likely to support him.

Two-thirds said they've heard that Gore cannot be trusted and tends to exaggerate, and a fourth said that makes their support for him less likely. Just over half have heard the criticism that Gore wants to bring back the era of big government, and one in five said that makes them less likely to support him.

Some see other factors at work.

``Number one, there's a distrust of the Republican Party. Even though the religious right is quiet right now there's a fear that Bush would have to live up to their expectations,'' said Lowell Weicker, a former Republican senator and ex-independent governor of Connecticut.

``Number two, there's a fatigue factor with President Clinton and, fair or not, it extends to Gore.''