WASHINGTON — The fashion industry remained as divided and unsure as the country on Thursday over who would best serve their needs and get the economy back on a strong footing, as the presidential race entered the homestretch.

The last of the three presidential debates Wednesday night, where the candidates exchanged disparate views on the economy’s health and their ideas for its future, didn’t appear to break the deadlock in national polls between President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

With 19 days left before Election Day, the specter of potential ballot recounts delaying the announcement of a victor, as occurred in the 2000 election, is becoming a growing fear among pundits. That election was decided Dec. 12, 2000 by the Supreme Court, which refused to order a recount of contested Florida ballots, giving Bush a victory in the state and enough electoral votes to best Democrat Al Gore.

“My biggest concern is that we’re not going to know on Nov. 3 who the president will be and I think that would be the worst result for the country,” said Tracy Mullin, chief executive office and president of the National Retail Federation.

Mullin, who considered the debate focused on domestic policy to be a draw, said she didn’t hear concrete plans from either candidate on how to boost the hot-and-cold economy.

James Pfiffner, a political science professor at George Mason University, said he didn’t expect the last debate to have “made a big difference in the way people see the candidates.” Like others, Pfiffner said it’s impossible to forecast a winner in the contest and questioned how well polls are capturing who millions of newly registered voters might support.

During the debate at Arizona State University in Tempe, Bush said he considers the economy pointed in the right direction after recovering from blows caused by the 2001 terrorist attacks and the recession, which he claims doused already tepid growth in the closing months of the Clinton administration.

Kerry said the employment market is limping along, since statistically not enough jobs are being created to keep pace with growth in the labor pool, and he underscored the net loss of 1.6 million private sector jobs during the Bush administration.

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Kevin Burke, president and ceo of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said Kerry’s hitting Bush during the debate on the job front should “ring real loud” in the handful of battleground states where job losses, particularly in manufacturing, are a central issue.

“They have been affected by global forces and they’re angry because things haven’t gone their way,” Burke said.

However, Burke said he agrees with Bush’s economic solutions espoused during the debate and grounded in improving childhood education and retraining displaced workers for what the President called “Jobs for the 21st Century.” However, Burke said of the debate: “Neither one hit a home run. Neither one blew me away.”

Arizona retailer Ray Carroll, who is also a Republican office holder as a supervisor of Pima County, where Tucson is located, said job training has been a local emphasis and successful. Carroll, who owns a high-end women’s boutique called Mills-Touche, with his wife, Ann, also gave Bush a pass on the lackluster job market.

“I don’t believe the President is solely responsible for the job numbers,” Carroll said. “The economy is in transition.”

Robert DuPree, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, was buoyed by Kerry’s mention of the need to force China to bring its currency in line with world markets. The yuan is seen as being undervalued by as much as 40 percent, which in turn lowers the price of China’s exports, including apparel and textiles.

U.S. textile producers, which have seen 350,000 domestic mill and apparel jobs lost in Bush’s term, have been disappointed that the President hasn’t done more to pressure the Chinese on its currency. Textile executives have also criticized Bush for being too aggressive in expanding international trade without adequately ensuring trade agreements are equitable for U.S. workers.

“We think the textile industry does consist of jobs for the 21st century and we prefer to see emphasis on trade policies that keep jobs here rather than discussing how to retrain our workers,” DuPree said.

Meanwhile, Kerry’s discussion during the debate of his health care plan, which among other things would allow the uninsured to buy affordable coverage through the government, calls for “fair” trade agreements and an increase in the $5.15-an-hour federal minimum wage, should help to “mobilize the Democratic base vote and influence swing voters in the middle class in battleground states” like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, said Chris Chafe, political director with the apparel union UNITE HERE.

“In these swing states, people are going through tremendous economic distress and are looking for real answers on kitchen table economic issues,” Chafe said.