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Final Debate Could Determine Winner in Nearly Tied Election

By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush meet Tuesday night in St. Louis for their final and potentially decisive debate, with Gore under pressure to sharpen his differences with Bush and convince voters that he is best equipped to keep the economy prospering.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush maintaining a narrow lead three weeks before Election Day.

That represents no significant change from a week ago, but there has been a clear shift in the balance of the race since the debates began on Oct. 3 in Boston.

The poll showed that Gore has suffered a sharp drop in his credibility rating in recent weeks, which may complicate his efforts to win over swing voters in Tuesday night’s debate.

Last month, more than six in 10 voters said Gore was honest and trustworthy. Today, fewer than half shared that view. Bush’s credibility also dropped slightly in the most recent Post-ABC News poll, suggesting that voters currently view both candidates with heightened skepticism.

Tuesday night’s debate will be held in the shadow of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the efforts by President Clinton and other leaders -- so far unsuccessful -- to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians away from the violence of the past three weeks and toward serious negotiations.

Both campaigns remain wary about how the international events may affect the final weeks of the campaign.

Bush’s October surge caught the Gore campaign by surprise and has unnerved many Democrats, who say the vice president must use Tuesday night’s debate to put Bush on the defensive and regain the initiative in the race.

Gore advisers acknowledged Monday that the first two debates have left the man with a reputation as a champion debater with considerable unfinished business.