If cutthroat political races offering clear choices constitute voter heaven, then Midwesterners this fall have found paradise. Besides their role in the presidential race -- likely to be crucial -- voters in the nation's midsection will settle other close contests this November between well-known and well-financed opponents.
With the biggest prizes of California, New York and Texas essentially already locked up by Al Gore and George W. Bush, the Midwest has become ground zero in the battle for the presidency. Four states -- Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin -- are still considered toss-ups. The region is also key to the national parties as they vie for control of the U.S. Senate.
On November 7, voters in the 12 states from Ohio to the Great Plains will pick eight U.S. senators and three governors. Four of the Senate contests, in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska, are still considered competitive, as are the governors' races in Missouri and North Dakota. At least six races for the U.S. House also remain tossups.
"All the races here (in Missouri), up and down the ballot, with literally the exception of one race for Attorney General, are just too close to call," said Steve Kraske, political reporters for The Kansas City Star. "There's a sense here that things are teetering very much on the edge between Democrats and Republicans."
All the attention -- from the presidential candidates, the national parties and the media -- is translating into heightened voter interest and may propel more people to the polls come November, particularly in Missouri and Michigan, political analysts say.
But evidence is growing that the election spotlight is also blinding voters, rather than illuminating their choices. Experts point to higher levels of confusion and fatigue among the electorate in key states, where television advertising by presidential and Senate candidates has swamped the airwaves.
"It's just non-stop," said David Fassenfest of Wayne State University in Michigan. "People are tired of giving information and people are tired of receiving information."
At this point, many of the candidates, particularly Bush and Gore, are fighting over a tiny pool of voters. In the key states in the presidential race -- Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin -- nearly 90 percent of those who say they will vote in November have already made up their minds.
These states account for a total of 61 electoral votes, nearly a quarter of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
With so many races so tight, the results will likely hinge not so much on the size of the electorate, but its composition, analysts say. With turnout overall expected to remain at 1996 levels, who votes, not how many, will make the difference.
"It's not, 'I'm going to get your Democrats and you're going to get my Republicans,'" said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "It's, 'who's going to get that middle-of-the-road voter,' while you keep your voters and your base wanting to show up on election day."
Show-Down in the Show-Me State
In no state do voters face as many choices this November as in Missouri. In addition to assigning 17 electoral votes to a presidential contender, voters there will decide whether to oust their popular U.S. senator, conservative Republican John Ashcroft, for their popular governor, Democrat Mel Carnahan.
"They are two all-stars or Titans going against each other. [They] literally have broken records in vote-getting ability in winning their respective races in the past," said political science professor Ken Warren of St. Louis University.
With Carnahan retiring, voters will also pick a new chief executive officer and every other statewide official but auditor.
A possible tie in the state Senate, where Republicans have slowly encroached on a longstanding Democratic majority, has elevated the importance of the race for lieutenant governor. In a deadlocked Senate, the state's number-two would cast the deciding votes.
According to the polls, nearly all of these races are still very competitive. Gore's statistical lead over Bush prior to last Tuesday's first debate -- five points in one poll, four points in another -- is reduced to a tie when survey error is taken into account.
But even the frequent visits to the state by Bush and Gore cannot overshadow the state's Senate race. Often described as polar opposites, Carnahan and Ashcroft have been running neck and neck in the polls all year. Just nine percent of likely voters say they have yet to make up their minds.
Animosity between the two goes back at least a decade to Ashcroft's stint as governor and Carnahan's tenure as his lieutenant. Almost immediately after his re-election to the state's top job in 1998, Carnahan made known his intention to challenge Ashcroft in 2000.
"They are polar opposites ideologically. They cannot relate to one another," Warren said.
"Carnahan is more liberal at his core. Ashcroft is very conservative," said Kraske of The Kansas City Star. "You are seeing them run to the middle to grab those 22 voters that remain undecided."
Missouri's open governor's seat is also offering voters a clear ideological choice. State treasurer, Bob Holden, a liberal-leaning Democrat, is facing U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, a conservative Republican.
The quieter, more introverted personalities of Holden and Talent have meant neither has yet garnered much attention from the public or the press. Off to a slow start, the race is deadlocked according to a recent Kansas City Star poll, with nearly a third of voters undecided.
"There is a sense here that the Senate race is blocking out the sun for everyone else," said Kraske. "The down-ballot people just haven't seen any light of day."
Tight Senate Races
Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska are also hosting very competitive races for the U.S. Senate this year and, with Democrats within five seats of controlling that chamber, the national parties and interests groups are pouring millions of dollars into these states.
Until recently, Michigan's incumbent Republican senator, Spencer Abraham, had been locked in a tie with his challenger, U.S. Rep. Deborah Stabenow.
Abraham, a former aide to Vice President Dan Quayle who entered elective politics for the first time when he ran in 1994, kept such a low profile as a freshman that he began his re-election campaign with many voters unsure of who he was and what he stood for.
"I don't think he did as good a job as other incumbents in building up support during his term," said political scientist David Rohde of Michigan State University. In recent polls, Abraham was leading Stabenow by nine percentage points, but the race is still close, says pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA. A large portion of the electorate, 23 percent, is still undecided.
"Spence was the most beatable Senator in the United States, but the [Stabenow] campaign was not managed properly to take advantage of that opportunity," Sarpolus said. Stabenow just began to respond to her opponent's television advertising campaign.
In Michigan as in Missouri, Gore recently overcame Bush and now holds a slight edge. The EPIC/MRA poll of late September finds Gore with 45 percent and Bush with 39 percent -- a one-point spread when the four-percent margin of error is factored in. Just 13 percent of likely voters in Michigan have not picked a presidential candidate.
Elections in Michigan are likely to be determined by how many voters turn out for their candidate, analysts say, and that may depend on an unpredictable wild card, a ballot initiative called Proposition One which would create a statewide school voucher program.
Under the proposed constitutional amendment, students in districts with graduation rates below 66 percent would get vouchers worth $3,300 toward private school tuition. Only Detroit and six other districts now have graduation rates low enough to qualify.
The proposal also calls for teacher testing in the schools that accept the vouchers.
It is too early to predict whether the measure will draw more Democrats or Republicans to the polls. A targeted voucher program might seem to be a welcome notion in Michigan, particularly given the current Republican domination of state politics. But there as elsewhere, the debate over vouchers transcends partisan differences.
Republican Gov. John Engler opposes Prop. 1 and is pushing for choice through charter schools. In a recent state poll however, voters in Detroit, a heavily Democratic area, backed the measure by more than 50 percent.
A confusing advertising campaign by proponents has not helped matters. Support for the measure dropped to 37 percent from 42 percent in the most recent EPIC/MRA poll.
Senate Races in Minnesota and Nebraska
In Minnesota, another endangered Republican, Rod Grams, is struggling to rally support. Like Abraham in Michigan, Grams was swept into Congress by the Republican tide in 1994.
Democrats have long charged that the pro-life, anti-tax Grams is too conservative for the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Minnesota is now considered likely to go for Gore in November and the Republicans are at risk of losing their control over the state House.
Just a week after the September primary, Democratic challenger Mark Dayton, heir to the Target discount store fortune, had taken an impressive lead over Grams, 49 percent to 35 percent, according to a poll for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
With Grams and Abraham in trouble, Republicans have fought hard for the Nebraska seat being vacated by Bob Kerry, a Democrat. Their nominee, state Attorney General Don Stenberg, would probably be a sure thing in this heavily Republican state under other circumstances.
But the Democrats' choice, the popular former Gov. Ben Nelson, has maintained an advantage in state polls.
In other Midwestern races: