St. Louis — The debating done, Al Gore hitched his election hopes to the volatile economy Wednesday and rival George W. Bush plunged into Democratic terrain for the final 20 days of their nip-and-tuck presidential campaign.
Jittery about ground lost to Bush since early October, Democrats welcomed the vice president's new focus but wondered why he took so long to seek political advantage from the economic recovery under Clinton-Gore.
"I'm not sure why he avoided that. It's been nuts to wait," said Democratic operative Ken Brock of Michigan. People in both parties said the dynamics of the race changed little after the third and final debate Tuesday.
Heading into the homestretch, Gore is promising to fight big business on behalf of working families a populist theme he struck repeatedly during the faceoff.
Bush is sticking with his message of civility, smaller government, lower taxes and a break from what he refers to as the cynicism and scandal of Washington. He mentioned bipartisanship at least 10 times Tuesday night.
Both campaigns lined up millions of dollars in TV ads to spread their messages in the final three weeks.
Republican strategists are considering increasing their efforts in California, Minnesota and maybe even Vermont, traditionally Democratic states that Gore can't afford to defend.
On Thursday, the Republican National Committee was announcing Spanish-language ads in California and other states with large Hispanic populations.
In Ohio, a key battleground state, Gore advisers decided to pump up spending in two major cities Cleveland and Columbus after cutting their recent buys.
Nervous Democrats in California want Gore to siphon money from battleground states to slow Bush's inroads there, knowing Gore can't win the presidency without the Golden State.
The decisions are critical in a race that could be the closest since John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. In national polls and the race for state electoral votes, the contest is tied or Bush holds a slight edge.
The end game comes amid rising uncertainty about America's peace and prosperity. Even as Gore made the economy the cornerstone of his closing message, the stock market took a rollercoaster ride Wednesday. Turmoil in the Middle East and the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Navy ship cast a shadow over a campaign otherwise dominated by domestic policy.
Both campaigns claimed victory in the final debate, though less partisan analysts said it produced no winner only a clear contrast for undecided voters.
"Both candidates were on their game," said Pat Anderson, a GOP operative in Michigan. "Undecided voters clearly walked away with the impression that Al Gore was going to spend more money on social programs and George Bush was for smaller government and bigger tax cuts."
Democrats said with a hint of frustration that the race had become a contest between style and substance. While Bush looks relaxed and sure of himself, Gore's own allies said he had trouble connecting with voters, even those who backed the vice president on the issues.
"It's going to come down to an issues versus personalities race. I think that's good for us," Ohio Democrat Jim Ruvolo said, though he added that Gore won't find it easy closing the sale. "We have to challenge the American voters to say, 'Hey, do you want to take a risk on this guy Bush? Do you want to go back to how things were 8 years ago?"'
Gore acknowledged that he struggled to find his voice in the debates. "It was kind of like the story of Goldilocks: the first one was too hot, the second one was too cold and the third one was just right," he said.