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Northwest Passage

With so much attention on the Midwest battleground states, it's easy to overlook the tight presidential race in the Pacific Northwest - unless you're running for the job yourself, of course.

Earlier this week, Democrat Al Gore made a two-day campaign swing through Oregon and Washington State. GOP running mate Dick Cheney visited the two states on Tuesday. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, addressed Washington State supporters last weekend via satellite from his ranch in Texas.

And that doesn't include the battle over the airwaves in the Evergreen State. Between June and the first week of October, almost 6,000 TV ads for Bush or Gore have aired in the Seattle-Tacoma market. The area ranked second only to Philadelphia, according to a national analysis conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Portland, Oregon ranked eighth.

The reason is simple. In these two states, which represent 18 electoral votes combined, the race remains too close to call just two weeks before the election. Statewide polls in Washington show Gore fighting to keep his lead in a state that has voted for Democrats in the past three presidential elections. A mid-October poll conducted by American Research Group gave the vice president a mere two percent lead.

In Oregon, a poll by American Research gave Gore a one percent lead, while another by Riley Research Associates put Bush in the lead, 44 percent to 40 percent. Both leads are within the margin of error.

To further muddy the waters, Seattle's two newspapers split their endorsements for president, the Times opting for Bush and the Post-Intelligencer for Gore. The Oregonian, that state's largest paper, endorsed Bush.

Like Washington, Oregon has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, but polls suggest the race has tightened in that state as well partly because of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's appeal to environmentalists. Gore appeared to have those voters in mind when he spoke at Portland State University on Sunday night.

"When it comes to the environment, I've never given up. I've never turned my back, and I never will," said Gore.

In Bush's speech to supporters in Washington State, the GOP nominee did not mention the environment, stressing instead the importance of turning out to vote on Election Day.

"We have a solid chance to sweep the West Coast," said the Texas governor. "But this election will be close and the outcome will be determined precinct by precinct."

David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington, agrees. He predicts extremely strong turnout in his state, in the 70-to-80 percent range. (Absentee voting alone is expected to top 50 percent.) But in his estimation, the higher the turnout, the more benefit to Gore.

As is true in other swing states, the race will turn on the suburban vote, "especially women whare economic conservatives and social liberals," said Olson. He believes Bill Clinton, who carried the state twice, effectively appealed to this group's social conscience, but so far "Gore has done a mediocre job of that."

Ken Hoover, a political scientist at Western Washington University, divides the state into three voting segments: eastern Washington, which is rural and traditionally conservative; urban Seattle, which is progressive and liberal; and suburban Seattle, which could swing either way. Hoover said the GOP hopes to capitalize on the government's antitrust suit against Microsoft in this area, while the Democrats play to quality of life issues such as schools, urban sprawl, pollution, and the environment. The Democrat-sponsored TV ad calling attention to Texas' smog problem has played heavily in the Seattle market.

One environmental issue that has taken high priority in the eastern half of Washington State is the decision on whether to breach four dams on the Snake River in an effort to restore salmon runs.

While Bush has said he would not breach the dams, Gore has backed the Clinton administration's plan of studying the issue further to find a workable solution through a proposed "salmon summit" which would call the parties involved to find a compromise, similar to President Clinton's forest summit in 1993.

In a rare trip to the eastern part of the state on Monday, Gore spoke to students gathered at Gonzaga University in Spokane. But he did not mention the dams, choosing instead to focus on his standard stump issues of health and education. Nevertheless, state Republican leaders were ready with a response to the vice president's environmental policies.

"Al Gore is out of touch with Washington state," said Sen. Slade Gorton in a written statement. "His goal of ripping the dams out of Eastern Washington to please D.C. environmentalists will hurt Washington families and job growth."

Bush has framed the issue as a choice between big government interference and individual freedoms, a popular theme in this populist state, said Ken Hoover. "Bush has been having some success with the government-bashing line Â… while Gore is stuck defending it."

The effect that Ralph Nader will have on Gore's campaign in the Pacific Northwest remains to be seen. His support hovers around the five percent level in Washington State, but may be as much as eight percent in Oregon, where an August rally in Portland attracted about 10,000 supporters.

Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon, has tracked elections in his state for many years. He warns against assuming that votes for Nader equate to votes taken away from Gore. About half of Nader's supporters would never cross over to vote for the two major party candidates, because they view them as "two corrupt peas in a pod." In his estimate, Nader might cost Gore about two to three percent of the vote.

But, said Hibbitt, "Nader is only one of Gore's headaches." The pollster cites a list of other factors hurting the vice president in Oregon, including Gore's stand on breaching dams, his association with the Clinton scandals, the fact that Bush is making an effort to compete in the state much more than his predecessors, and the observation that "people just don't like Gore very much out here."

"We're dealing with nuances," said Hibbitts, noting that any one of these single factors might cost Gore a mere one to two percent of the vote. But in a race this tight, he added, "It's not going to take a lot to tilt it one way or the other."