DALLAS Al Gore’s pollster yesterday acknowledged the vice president has failed to regain the female voters who fled to George W. Bush after the first debate, giving the Texas governor an overall lead that persists to this day.
“It’s going to be a tough two weeks,” said pollster Stan Greenberg, who expressed disappointment that Mr. Gore has been trailing Mr. Bush since their first debate Oct. 3. “It’s when we lost our national lead.”
Mr. Greenberg cited public polls showing the vice president trailing Mr. Bush by an average of three to four percentage points. He offered no internal polling data to brighten that scenario. Indeed, there were signs the Gore camp fears it is even further behind.
“We can make up five or six points on the ground in the final weeks,” insisted Gore campaign manager Donna Brazille.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Mrs. Brazille would lead “an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort” on a scale “never seen in the history of presidential campaigning.” Mr. Lehane downplayed his boss’ deficit in the polls as “a couple of points here, a couple of points there.”
But Mr. Greenberg, who served as President Clinton’s highly successful pollster before joining the Gore team earlier this year, sounded more pessimistic. He said Mr. Gore had hoped to use the three debates as a way to build on momentum established during the Democratic National Convention.
Instead, Mr. Gore’s aggressive demeanor in the first debate drove large numbers of women to Mr. Bush, Mr. Greenberg said. That swung the overall lead from the vice president to the Texas governor, who maintained the advantage through the second and third debates.
“There’s no doubt that after the first debate, the lead that we had going … disappeared,” Mr. Greenberg said. “And almost all of that movement was women college and non-college, old and young.”
He added: “There was also some movement among white, high school-educated men, but mostly it was women, all ages, all classes. And that’s the battleground on whether we pull back into the lead in the next week, whether those voters are won back.
“There’s some evidence in our data, underneath, that we got their attention in the last debate,” Mr. Greenberg said. “But the impressions of the first debate are still with them.”
In other words, Mr. Gore is having difficulty getting voters to look beyond the heavy sighs and rolling eyes that made him look condescending and petty next to Mr. Bush. Although the vice president appeared overly subdued in the second debate and finally seemed to hit his stride in the third, the images of the first debate have proven the most enduring.
Even more dispiriting to the Gore camp is the realization that while the vice president may have beaten Mr. Bush on pure debating points, voters found the Texas governor far more likable.
“The shift was stylistic, rather than issues,” said Mr. Greenberg, who pointed to internal polls that show Mr. Gore winning on debating points by “double-digit” margins.
At this late stage of the campaign, it is not enough for Mr. Gore to target only women. He must also increase his support among men, who overwhelmingly favor Mr. Bush. While conservative men are considered something of a lost cause for the Gore campaign, liberal men who currently support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader are viewed as ripe for picking.
“There are a lot of Nader voters who are potentially available to us, and the Nader voters tend to be more male in our data,” Mr. Greenberg said. “If we’re able to pick up some Nader voters, bring back particularly some of the women voters who have pulled away after the first debate, it’s not very far until you’re into an even race.”
Still, with just over two weeks left before Election Day, Mr. Gore did not expect to be trailing Mr. Bush. Asked by The Washington Times if the vice president had hoped to come out of the debates with forward momentum, Mr. Greenberg said: “I would love to have been decisively in the lead.”
Internal polls revealed some voters moving toward Mr. Gore, said Mr. Greenberg, who added: “I wish that were reflected more.” Instead, any movement toward the vice president is being offset by other voters who are moving away.
“Non-college women voters seem like they’ve moved toward us. And there’s some movement away among college voters,” Mr. Greenberg said. “But it’s a little bit early to say that’s a pattern.”
Seeking to find a bright spot for Mr. Gore in the polls, Mr. Greenberg pointed out that at least voters are not fleeing in large numbers, as they did from President Bush after his trio of debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992.
“I think voters are standing where they’ve been for the last two weeks they’re not in the process of moving either way,” he said. “There are things they like about both candidates. There are doubts they have about both candidates.”
Gore aides said they hoped to close the gap over the next week through a series of “major policy speeches” on health care, the environment, family values, education, tax cuts and the role of government in a robust economy. Mr. Gore kicked off the speeches yesterday with a discussion of sin and religion at a church in Dallas, where the Rev. Pat Robertson, a former GOP presidential candidate, also spoke.
Mr. Greenberg predicted that as the speeches unfold, the vote will move toward Gore.
“We view the last two weeks as a real campaign,” he said. “It’s very competitive. The idea of being able to move this election two or three points over the course of the next two weeks is completely reasonable and doable.”
To that end, Mr. Gore is spending precious time during the last days of his campaign stumping in states that were once considered safe for Democrats but are now very much in play. These include West Virginia, Washington, Oregon and Tennessee, all of which have voted Democratic in recent presidential elections.