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Election 2000: It's more fun when every vote counts

Sunday, November 05, 2000

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Consider the predicament of Bridget McMichael, age 17 years, 11 months and 28 days. She's in love with this election. She moderated the debate at her high school in Latrobe, making a student Al Gore square off with a student George W. Bush.

"I think it's pretty interesting how close they are in the race," she said.

If ever there were a young voter set to do her part, it is Bridget McMichael who -- and her eyes roll at this thought -- turns 18 on Wednesday. That's one day after the election.

"I probably know a lot more about it than many other voters and I can't affect anything," she said. "I'm going to be, what, 22 for the next one?"

In a country that four years ago sent fewer than half of its eligible voters to the polls, some now sense, at least in this part of the world, a sudden burst of enthusiasm.

For the first time since 1968, Pennsylvania, with its 23electoral votes, is in serious play. Candidates made glancing visits in 1980. In 1988, George Bush the elder didn't bother stopping by once the primaries were over.

This year, his son and Democratic candidate Al Gore have played Pittsburgh more times than the Steelers.

On top of it all, a hotly contested race in the 4th Congressional District, which courses through much of the state's southwest, has brought an infusion of outside cash and visits by dignitaries ranging from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona to Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.

In the region's epicenter of political conversation, the government offices along Grant Street in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Manager Robert Webb noticed the rising interest.

"You didn't hear much in the course of summer and early fall," Webb said. "People are now mentioning it at the beginning of conversations. Before, if you noted it, it was as a passing item."

"It bodes well for the turnout," said Stephen MacNett, chief counsel to the Republican leadership in the Pennsylvania State Senate. If there was an early lack of enthusiasm, MacNett said, it is likely attributable to a race more interesting than its top candidates.

"The candidates are not electrifying, at least in a charismatic sense," he said. "It's not a Reagan situation."

Indeed, ideology has made itself more evident. At United Steelworkers headquarters, union president George Becker lectured a reporter on the importance of supporting union candidates and the union cause. Throughout the region, the National Rifle Association has posted bulletin boards that at first declared "Vote Freedom First," and only later added the names of candidates such as Bush and Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

Along Route 66 in Greensburg, the Rev. Joe Billingsley took it a step further, putting up his weekly message on the marquee out front: "Vote for Freedom/ Vote for Jesus."

He doesn't mean write-ins.

"We believe when we go to the polls we ought to vote our morality," Billingsley said. He makes no secret that the issue for his group will be abortion, and that their candidate will undoubtedly be Bush.

Still, his congregation at the nondenominational fundamentalist Church of the Open Door in Greensburg, both its Democrats and Republicans, are primarily energized by the prospect of a close race.

"There's definitely more enthusiasm than there has been in the last two national elections," he said. "I think we've got people stirred up here. I'm excited by the fact that my vote is going to make a difference."

Excitement -- some would say incitement -- picked up the pace as the week closed out. In the 4th Congressional District, unidentified partisans for both Democrat Terry Van Horne and Republican Melissa Hart began a final round of efforts for their candidate.

On the Van Horne side, someone has begun a massive sign-stealing campaign, an election perennial. The Hart campaign has replaced hundreds of signs taken from the lawns of supporters.

"They go to bed at night and wake up and the signs are gone," Hart said. "It's pretty outrageous activity."

From Hart's corner, an unidentified voice declaring, "Hello, this is David, calling about your taxes," began hitting homes with brief, taped calls accusing Van Horne of raising taxes and padding his pockets with pay raises.

Van Horne campaign manager J.J. Balaban said the calls have left his man uncertain about what to do.

"We're looking at filing an FEC complaint but we don't know against whom," Balaban said. "I think if we file one against 'David' we could disaffect a sizable number of voters in this district."

With both candidates attracting outside interest from groups such as the Steelworkers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Hart-Van Horne race promises to top the $4 million mark in spending.

Van Horne, viewed as the underdog in a contest in which he has been outspent, did some spending of his own last week, with an eye to either looking highly congressional or presentable at job interviews.

"My wife and I went out and bought three new suits," he said. "She said, 'You need new suits no matter what happens.' "

On the north-bound T heading into Pittsburgh, a collection of South Hills women crowded on. Their preferences were pretty clear, especially those of Elaine Warren.

The Mt. Lebanon woman was wearing a "Women for Bush" button and, just to dispel any notions this was a crossover voter, a large, golden elephant pendant hung from her neck.

"I'm going to have lunch with Barbara. I thought I was the only one," Warren laughed.

She was not. Hundreds of women turned out for a luncheon with the former first lady, who visited on behalf of her son. Campaign aides warned reporters against shouting any questions, but the question of the day was irresistible: Eleventh hour revelations that her son, George W., had a 24-year-old drunken driving conviction.

"Much ado about nothing," Barbara Bush waved off the question.

But in an election where things have suddenly connected with the voters, Lynn Cullen, one of the city's rare liberal radio talk hosts, was in high pitch.

"I would say Democrats have been dispirited until today," Cullen said, between calls on her politics-heavy talk show Friday. "I've never heard so many Gore supporters for once sounding energized."

The attention, the focus, made the day go quickly. Cullen, the unabashed Democrat, summed it up in words even the conservative Rev. Billingsley could endorse.

"People feel like their vote definitely counts."

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