Posted: Mar 02, 2004 12:00 AM

A recent survey conducted by a company called Research 2000 shows President George W. Bush with a narrow lead in Florida against John Kerry. While I'm not familiar with this particular polling firm, a quick examination of the survey suggests they are on the mark. That having been said, what factors will truly make the difference in the state that's likely to be the nation's top electoral prize this November?

Most important may be turnout. Which party's supporters will be most motivated to flock to the polls? Arguably, both Democrats and Republicans will have equal incentive. Republicans will want to rally around their president, which would also serve as support for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They will also want to see the GOP win the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by the retiring Sen. Bob Graham. Democrats, who have been chomping at the bit to even up what they believe was a stolen 2000 presidential election, also will be highly motivated.

As always, the deciding factor in the election will be the huge contingent of voters in Florida who view themselves as "independents." Polls conducted regularly in Florida by firms such as InsiderAdvantage, Zogby International and Mason-Dixon have all "weighted" their surveys to reflect the anticipated voter turnout by these many independents. These pollsters' statistical weightings in Florida often include double the percentage of independents that pollsters use to measure other states.

Are these independents likely to support Ralph Nader in his "independent" bid for president? The poll suggested not, and there is little reason to believe it is wrong. Nader's bid in 2000 had Green Party support and was a news-making novelty in presidential politics. His current effort lacks such support and has been described by at least one journalist as Nader inviting America to witness his mid-life crisis.

In all probability, the critical swing voters will vote for Bush, the Democratic nominee or no one. Those who stay home likely would benefit Bush, who trailed Kerry among the independents surveyed in the Research 2000 poll.

On the other hand, what might drive these less partisan voters to the polls? How about the slew of potential constitutional amendments that may well be on Florida's ballot next fall? For example, an effort by a medical doctors' organization in Florida has set off a chain reaction of amendments aimed at -- as usual -- lawyers and doctors.

Typically these are the kinds of battles that both professions and both political parties relish. But not this time. Republicans know too well that a flurry of amendments attempting to limit attorneys' fees or require additional disclosure of past errors by physicians will likely serve to "supercharge" the Sunshine State's electorate. These amendments might be what attracts otherwise unmotivated independent voters to the polls, giving Florida what could be the highest percentage of voter turnout in the nation.

Top Republicans have desperately wanted to see these amendments go away. Even usual allies, such as insurance companies, HMOs and doctors, have quietly or not so quietly pleaded for these issues to remain off the ballot. But it appears that both the doctors and lawyers are headed toward another round of mutually assured self-destruction -- leaving President Bush as a potential unintended victim of their battles.

On the other hand, political pundits may be underestimating the combined impact on the November election of a Nader campaign -- designed to appeal to a small, devoted anti-business crowd -- and the fallout of a little "sunshine" on Sen. Kerry's left-of-center voting record. In Florida, it was this very same group of "moderate independents" who supplied Gov. Bush with the last-minute support he needed to pummel his Democratic opponent in 2002. The right presentation of the Democratic nominee's record could easily cause the wheels to come off for the Democrats in Florida.

Come November, not every state will be facing turnout-bolstering amendments or the "revenge factor" that seems to linger among Florida's core Democrats. But there is little doubt many other states are now witnessing these same "see-saw" polling numbers -- numbers that suggest the presidential race may be as perilously close as it was in 2000.

Lately, the Democrats have enjoyed the spotlight and consequently a substantial national polling lead over the president. But you can bet the Democrats will see their share of bumps in the road once the Republicans begin taking aim in earnest. So as the race begins to narrow, the question of who turns out to vote and for what reason may well overshadow all other factors in determining whether President Bush wins another term in office.