STOW, O. - The signs glare at each other from across the street in this tidy suburb: One urging the election of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the other exhorting Vice President Gore.
The signs belong to two “buddies'' who find themselves divided by the election. Kerry Collins, a devoted Republican, first plopped his Bush sign on the front lawn of his white, two-level home. Then his enthusiastic Democratic friend Walt Fink responded by pounding a Gore placard in the front yard of his gray colonial.
They are good-natured jabs between neighbors - the two chatted about politics the other night as they chaperoned their children around the subdivision on Halloween. As a joke, Mr. Fink even put his sign on Mr. Collins's lawn one evening, which Mr. Collins's wife returned the next day.
But their signs are symbolic of the political divisions in this suburb and communities like it all over America in what could be the closest presidential race since 1960, a campaign that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.
Although Mr. Bush appears headed toward victory in this bellwether suburb and the state of Ohio in tomorrow's election, the political split is evident all over Stow. As neighbors Donna Stofiel, 47, and Joyce Allen, 60, talked with one another, Ms. Stofiel said without hesitation that she planned to vote for Governor Bush while Ms. Allen said just as firmly she would back Vice President Gore because “he has the most experience.''
Not too far away at the Stow-Kent Barber Stylist, barber Tom Kunkel pronounced that he and his wife would vote for Governor Bush. But the barber right next to him, Jack Honeycutt, was torn, swerving one day from Mr. Gore to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to undecided the next day.
And at a school-bus stop on nearby Fishcreek Road, Janet Emmert, 33, is so committed to Mr. Gore that she will be “devastated'' if Governor Bush wins. Yet right next to her, Carol Medkeff, 54, plans to “make a statement'' and vote for Mr. Nader, even though she is a lifelong Democrat.
This immaculate suburb of 31,000 people filled with insurance agents, physicians, dentists, teachers, union workers, and soccer moms has a remarkable record for siding with the winning candidate. Many of them look like traditional Republicans but display a powerful streak of independence, swerving back and forth between candidates from both parties.
Stow chose President Clinton in 1996; former President Bush, Governor Bush's father, in 1988; and former President Reagan in 1984 and 1980. Stow voters split their votes in 1992 between President Bush and Mr. Clinton, but provided Texas billionaire Ross Perot with 24 per cent of the community's vote.
They backed Republican Bob Taft for Ohio's governor and Republican Gov. George Voinovich for U.S. senator in 1998, but supported Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste in 1986 and Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum in 1988. They regularly voted for former Democratic Sen. John Glenn. Their congressman is a Democrat; their mayor a Republican.
In interviews a year ago, they were looking for alternatives to Governor Bush and Vice President Gore, briefly flirting with former Sen. Bill Bradley (D., N.J.) and glancing at magazine publisher Steve Forbes. Last spring, they were enchanted with the rugged independence of Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). In the glowing aftermath of last August's Democratic National Convention, they seemed to give Mr. Gore a second look.
But now, on the eve of the presidential election, Stow appears to be tilting toward Mr. Bush, a man they have developed some comfort and familiarity with. Many, such as Greg Cochran, are even answering with a crisp “George W.,'' rather than using Mr. Bush's last name or his formal title of Governor Bush.
Like many baby boomers, they seem willing to forgive and forget. Most - including those who back Mr. Gore - dismissed revelations that Mr. Bush had been arrested in 1976 for driving while drinking. Ms. Medkeff, who lives in nearby Cuyahoga Falls, O., but whose daughter resides in Stow, said, “It's pretty crummy that they would dig up something that he did 24 years ago and drag it out now just before the election.''
Mr. Fink said that Mr. Bush “probably did something that a lot of people do. He just got caught. It's not the worst thing in the world. He quit drinking ... years ago. So it's no longer an issue. And he did it when he was pretty young. And I don't really blame him for not disclosing it earlier.''
This well-manicured community of new subdivisions lacks the charm of adjacent Hudson, which features an inviting town square complete with white gazebo. Stow's few outdoor strip malls contain stores more functional than luxurious - the nearest Saks Fifth Avenue is 30 miles away in suburban Cleveland.
But it is a rapidly growing community of baby boomers whose families once lived in Akron. While their homes do not match the elaborate Tudor mansions of nearby Cleveland's wealthy Shaker Heights, Stow's residents live comfortably. Realtor Pam O'Keefe laughs about having two kids in college and four cars.
Because Stow is predominately white, middle class, and loaded with baby boomers, it is not representative of the nation. But with suburbanites now voting in greater numbers than those living in cities, suburbs like Stow have become key to winning the presidency.
Suburbs rallied twice to Mr. Clinton, who emphasized their issues: improving education, controlling crime, and curbing health-care costs. Some Stow voters, while deploring Mr. Clinton's sexual involvement with a onetime White House intern, say they would vote for him again if they could.
These are the voters Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have courted all year. Gone are the days when presidential candidates speak of pricey new programs for the poor. Neither candidate touts expensive urban renewal plans or universal health coverage.
Instead, their messages are suburban-specific: Mr. Bush talks of cutting taxes and allowing young workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. Both support federal aid to allow the elderly to afford prescription drugs. Mr. Gore backs expanding the rights of patients against managed-care providers and tax credits to permit baby boomers to send their children to college.
If such a middle-class message sells in Stow, it sells in thousands of suburbs across the country, from Ohio to California.
“I think the suburbs are the key to Bush's winning,'' said Peter Harris, a Democratic consultant in Washington. “Gore's job is to keep Bush's margin down by raising doubts among suburban women, and winning labor families, lower-income families, and African Americans. I don't think Gore wins the suburbs. I think he limits the damage in the suburbs.''
Stow is in a state that also has a tradition of siding with the winner. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. Some analysts argue that Ohio has gradually become more Republican in the past 20 years, but Thomas Dewey in 1944 and Richard Nixon in 1960 were the only presidential candidates to win Ohio and lose the election.
Mr. Bush's support here generally is more lukewarm than enthusiastic. There are still doubts about whether six years as governor of Texas have prepared him for the rigors of the presidency. But a number of voters said the three debates between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore helped nudge them toward the Republican.
“I know this might sound weird, but I just liked his personality better than Gore,'' said Marianne Nagy, as she walked her 2-year-old son, Peter. “I always thought I would vote for Gore until the debates. [But] I thought he was kind of self-righteous and I really didn't like his personality. I had never seen that side of Gore.''
Pam O'Keefe, the Realtor, is a Republican but characterized Mr. Bush as “OK.'' She dismissed Mr. Gore as “so arrogant and pushy'' in the debates. Referring to third debate where Mr. Gore marched across the stage to confront Mr. Bush, Ms. O'Keefe thought “he was ready to attack Bush.... He was like getting in his face. To me, that just showed the true Gore.''
Brian Lloyd, 33, a dentist taking the day off to replace the Halloween decorations on his ranch-style home with Christmas lights, said, “I'll be honest with you: Do I think George Bush is the greatest candidate out there? No. I think he is the lesser of two evils.''
Yet others are displaying growing zeal for Mr. Bush. Mr. Cochran, 38, an executive with a tool company, said that he believes “in what [Mr. Bush] stands for - reducing the size of government, reducing taxes, and returning money to the people.''
Jeff Seiler, 49, a sales representative, said he is “more enthusiastic'' about Mr. Bush than he was a year ago. “I really didn't know what his positions were [then]. I knew he was the son of the president, but other than that I didn't [know] a lot of what he stood for.''
Lesli Ouillette, 34 a homemaker with two young children, described herself as a “big, big Bush supporter.'' She is so fervent that she ordered five yard signs from Mr. Bush's web site, stuck one in her front lawn, and gave away the other four to friends and relatives.
“I like his plan for education, I truly believe he is a much more honest person,'' Ms. Ouillette said. “I especially like Bush's plan for tax cuts. It's only fair that it should go to everybody. Yes, the top 1 per cent pay the most taxes; so naturally they deserve a tax break also. But everybody is going to get a tax break under George Bush.''
Yet Mr. Gore's support here is not inconsiderable, particularly among those who harbor doubts about Mr. Bush's resume and intellect. They include a handful of those, like Rosemary Prange, 65, who voted for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996.
“I'm a registered Republican, but I'm going to vote for Gore,'' she said. “I just like him better.'' She said she doubts that Mr. Bush is up to the job, adding, “I didn't think he was too intelligent at times.''
Peggy Parson, who runs a woman's consignment shop, backed Mr. Dole in 1996 but said this year she plans to vote for “President Gore.'' Catching her mistake, she laughed. She cited his experience and called Mr. Bush's qualifications “questionable.''
Lisa Yari, a clerk at Walgreen's, pointed to a cover of Time magazine with photos of Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. Indicating Mr. Gore, she said, “I just believe he's better able to handle the Middle East problems that we have.''
Penny Schirra, 34, a homemaker whose husband is a union worker in a grocery store, said she would probably back Mr. Gore “because he supports the unions. The things I've heard on Bush and the unions scares me. Bush kind of reminds me of his father a little too much.''
But in the final days of this first presidential election, a number of voters remain torn, clearly dissatisfied with the choices. And like many baby boomers scarred by the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, their distrust of politicians borders on contempt.
“I feel that it's sorry that these are the best two candidates we can come up with,'' complained Wendy Cline, 39, who left a teaching job to rear four young children. “I'm leaning toward Bush. But it's a very narrow margin.''
Jim Erickson, 55, a retired insurance man, declared he is “one of those still-undecideds,'' lamenting he would probably not decide for sure until the night before the election.
A Republican, Mr. Erickson said he would like to cast a vote for Mr. Bush. But he conceded he is troubled by Mr. Bush's “lack of Washington experience'' and pointed out that “the economy has been pretty good for the last eight years under the Democrats.''
That might seem to suggest a vote for Mr. Gore. But Mr. Erickson has doubts about Mr. Gore as well. “He just comes across as uninspiring,'' he said. “I wouldn't feel very confident in his ability. I think it would be more of the same. But then again, like I said, not that there's anything wrong with that. The economy has been good.''
Some are not only undecided but change their minds daily. Jack Honeycutt said in his barber shop Wednesday, “If it were today, I'd probably vote for Gore.'' But he admitted, “I have been changing my mind a lot. Neither one represents me. I feel like I fall right in the middle. The Democrats represent the poor, and the Republicans represent the rich.''