AUSTIN, TEX. A month ago, things seemed to be coming unhinged here on the second floor of the modern bank building that, behind a phalanx of security officers and electronically controlled doors, holds the brain trust of George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Vice President Al Gore seemed to be streaking ahead in the polls; the Texas governor seemed to be shrinking in the eyes of the nation.
No more. Now a new sense of confidence seems to be flowing through the place, a mess of computer printouts and colored maps and poll soundings. The states that are being contested are part of the Democratic base, not the Republican, the campaign is not being fought in any state that former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas carried in 1996, and five of the states still up for grabs were carried in 1988 by the Democratic ticket headed by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.
Bush has been down (Sen. John McCain flattened him in New Hampshire seven months ago) and he has been up (he clinched the Republican nomination only weeks later) and he has been down again (the victim of the killer kiss in Los Angeles). Right now he's up again leading in some polls but there's time (and tinder) for another swing. Or more.
The Austin team is girding for a slew of new attacks on Bush and his Texas record the Democrats already are warning that "Bush's Texas-style environmental regulation" would wreathe Seattle in smog but Bush aides believe their rivals won't be able to make Texas the embarrassment that Boston Harbor was for Dukakis a dozen years ago.
They believe the attack by Bush's father on Boston Harbor worked because it was accompanied by an offensive suggesting that Dukakis didn't have mainstream values. This time, chief Bush strategist Karl Rove says, the vice president "can't say that Bush has values that are different from his and he can't depict him as being out of the mainstream."
That's the heart of the Bush defense in the last three weeks of the campaign: He has recognizable, easily understood and widely shared values.
The newest Bush offensive is in a handful of states Dukakis carried Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, even devoutly Democratic West Virginia plus the same "swing states" that Gore is emphasizing: Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Gore probably has the advantage in Pennsylvania, Bush in Ohio. But neither is out of reach for Bush or for Gore.
Then there are a number of small states that ordinarily get no attention but that might, alone or in combination with each other, make the difference in a close race. Thus the unusual phenomenon of ad wars in Maine and New Hampshire (both carried by Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 but as volatile now as home heating-oil prices), Delaware and Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are worried about Louisiana, which Clinton carried twice but which may be out of reach for them this time, while the Republicans are worried about New Mexico, which since it became a state in 1912 has had a remarkable record for not only choosing the winning presidential candidate (it was wrong only in 1976) but also nearly matching the margin of victory.
Republican strategists calculate that the race will remain close to the end, with one of the important group of undecided voters being Americans who are relatively content with their personal circumstances (advantage: Gore) but who would prefer a change in leadership (advantage: Bush).
All this is occurring in an atmosphere that is not exactly filled with political passion.
"Neither of the candidates is very exciting, neither has very strong supporters on his side, and the whole thing has generated very little enthusiasm," said Austin Ranney, a retired political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "You have to go back to 1956, when everyone knew that Dwight Eisenhower would be re-elected, to find an election as dull and this should be more exciting because it is supposed to be very close."
But the campaigns still are fighting fiercely for these voters. Bush's aides believe Gore may have damaged himself with them by emphasizing populist rhetoric. "These are middle-class voters, but they are not driven by populist resentment," says Rove. "They're working, they have high aspirations for themselves and their kids, they believe if they work hard things will be OK. If they had resentments, they would already be for Gore or for Nader or Buchanan."
And so Bush will be telling these voters he wants to overhaul education, strengthen Social Security, reform Medicare, provide prescription-drug relief for seniors, cut taxes and rebuild America's military force. In truth, Gore will be emphasizing the very same things. The battle for the voters in the middle is being conducted right in the middle of the political spectrum.
David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.