As it has been for weeks, Campaign 2000 remains not about the many but about the margins. All we’ve heard about in the last few days before the election are Nader voters and the undecideds (Really, what are these people waiting for?). But just as important to the outcome as these much-heralded groups are Black voters. “This is an election where the Black vote really turning out could make the difference between winning and losing for Al Gore,” says David Bositis, the expert on Black voting patterns at the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

But wait a minute. Before we get to turnout and Al Gore, what about George W. Bush? The Republican has spent the last year surrounding himself with Black and Latino kids at photo ops. He, unlike Bob Dole four years ago, went to speak to the NAACP convention last summer. And the Republican National Committee has spent an unprecedented $1 million dollars on ads meant to get out our vote. So why wouldn’t the benefits of turnout go to Bush? Bositis, whom the GOP has called for advice, explains that this is show money, a down-payment for future years, but not a real bid on 2000. “They know they’ve got a long-term problem with the Black vote,” he says. “They know they’ve got to pay now for hope later.”

In fact, Bositis expects the Republicans to do worse with Bush than they did with the dour Dole. At least Dole had a record on civil rights (as well as vice presidential choice Jack Kemp, who drives people in his own party batty with how much he talks about racial healing). But Bositis says study of the Black press — the filter through which a majority of Black America gets its news — shows that most of the commentary is pointed and recalls events like Bush’s visit to racist Bob Jones University during the South Carolina primary, Bush’s defense of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse and his aggressive backing of the death penalty. “Bush has done well from the perspective of public relations,” Bositis explains. “But his record on race? You can’t point to any positive directions.”

So if they’re not going to go to Bush, why can’t Al Gore just relax about the Black vote? According to a Joint Center poll of Black voters, Gore’s favorability numbers have spiked to 86 percent this year from 69 percent last year; in the same period, Bush’s favorability review fell to 28 percent from 43 percent. And there’s been a notable reversal in Black attitudes about the state of the country. For example, for years when the Joint Center polled how well people felt about their financial future, Blacks were always more pessimistic than Whites. But since 1998, Blacks have been more optimistic than Whites. And another change that helps Gore has been the Clinton administration’s second-term outreach efforts to Africa.

Black ministers’ warning: Get busy, Dems

But a Black Gore operative explains that good times also make for laid-back times. Unfortunately, without a perceived threat or other trigger points, many of us don’t feel an urgency to head to the polls, even though the next president is likely to make judicial, budget and social decisions that could drastically change life for African Americans.

And there’s been griping that the Gore campaign was slow to ramp up its turnout efforts, a lapse that has even some Blacks in his campaign worried about Nov. 7. Indeed, during the Congressional Black Caucus weekend in September, the pictures and stories were mostly about the partying. But up on Capitol Hill, Gore campaign leaders found themselves in a tense meeting with African-American leaders. The Congressmen were upset because Gore’s own internal polling had him not even breaking 50 percent in terms of Black voters who said they were likely to go to the polls for him. In “strong language,” the likes of elder statesman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and CBC chairman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) warned the campaign to get busy. But still in October there was some discontent, with Black ministers in Detroit sending Gore a letter warning him “don’t play us” by thinking the Democrat could pay attention to them only in the last days of the campaign.

Sure, such arguments between Blacks and Democratic presidential campaigns are perennial. But this time the stakes are unusually high. With the race so tight, the campaign has come down to specific states and generating the 270 Electoral College votes to put Gore over the top. So in a state-by-state struggle, the Black vote could be crucial, a lesson the Democrats learned during the 1998 elections. The Black vote turned made the difference in Democrats taking Senate or gubernatorial seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. In that year Blacks in Michigan flooded the polls, making up nearly 20 percent of the state vote, even though they are only 13 percent of the state’s population. A repeat of this in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, states with large black urban centers, could put Gore in the White House.

See Al Run

And so during the last week of the campaign Al Gore flew to Portland, Ore., to appeal to Nader voters, and then on to Los Angeles to joke with Jay Leno, whose Tonight Show reaches and influences many an undecided viewer. But then he went to a lengthy interview with BET’s Tavis Smiley. Two days later, after packing Chicago’s Daley Plaza, Gore went to the city’s South Side with Jesse Jackson for a soul-food lunch. And he’s got help. In a controversial move, the NAACP, which got an anonymous $9 million contribution earmarked for turnout, has been blitzing our neighborhoods with an ad campaign that clearly favors Gore and other Democrats, a move that some say is at odds with its stated non-partisan status.

But if you really want a sense of how intense and changed this race is, think about this phrase: voter registration. Once the battle cry of Black organizations, one almost never hears about registration anymore. If the NAACP and Urban League had wanted to do registration, let ’em have it, Clyburn told me in September. “We used to do a lot on registration,” he said of the CBC. “This time it’s all about turnout.” And so experts like Bositis predict this election could be historic, a true test of what resources both parties and advocacy groups are putting into our community. Thus, this could be the race where the Black vote, which was 8 percent in 1992 and 10 percent in 1996, finally gets to 12 percent, in line with our percentage of the U.S. population.

That would be a development that would make Blacks pivotal to this race and a highly courted group in 2004. Or it could be the year we stay home, a pattern that could leave the focus in 2004 not on either party turning us out, but leaving us out.