Doubts about candidates, satisfaction with times leave voters drifting

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

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Public enthusiasm for Al Gore's personality is down, doubts about George W. Bush's priorities and experience are up and times are thought to be generally good.

No wonder the number of voters who could change their minds hasn't budged in the last two weeks, according to a new poll. And never mind that the presidential election is in 13 days.

Almost one-fourth of the electorate has yet to finally decide whom to vote for on Nov. 7. And many swing back and forth, putting Republican Bush ahead late last week before he settled into a near tie with Democrat Gore this week in the closest presidential race in 40 years.

Voter preference among certain groups shifted significantly in the past couple of weeks, with younger voters moving toward Gore, voters 65 and over leaning slightly away and men younger than 50 shifting away from Bush in the poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

``There's a lot of shifting around, even though the overall horse race hasn't changed much,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. ``It reflects the unsettled nature of public opinion.''

That is also showing up in state polls, where Gore has regained a lead in Illinois and Bush has taken an edge in Florida.

The Pew survey of 663 likely voters taken from Wednesday to Sunday showed the race deadlocked at 45 percent apiece. The error margin was 4.5 percentage points.

``Gore's personality has become a bigger negative than it was in September,'' said Kohut. ``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.

``The toughest criticisms have to do with his record in Texas and caring more about rich people,'' he added. ``Those appear to be most effective among nonwhites and members of union households, core Democratic groups that Gore needs to energize.''

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. 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.

And voters are hearing the campaign criticisms leveled at the two 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 that he has a poor 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 that Gore wants to bring back the era of big government, and one in five said that makes them less likely to support him.

But 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 say this only adds to the level of indecision.

``They're perfectly content with either candidate,'' said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ``If it has to be Gore that's OK, if it has to be Bush that's OK.

``There's nothing in terms of the candidates themselves that has shaken this general air of lethargy, a contentment-induced lethargy,'' he added.