San Diego Union Tribune

October 17, 2004

2004 VOTE
Razor-tight race taking an intense, partisan turn
Kerry, Bush sharpening message for key voters

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON Still deadlocked with 17 days to go, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are campaigning on a shrinking battlefield of perhaps a dozen states and shifting from the broad message seen in the debates to more partisan points designed to rev up their electoral bases.

"Neither candidate has a clear edge," said Marshall Wittmann, the one-time Republican strategist who is an independent working for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

"Usually at this point in the campaign you feel a bit of momentum for one candidate or another. But in this campaign, no one really knows."

Warning that the race could be even closer than the 2000 squeaker, Wittmann added, "People should not expect to sleep on election night."

For Kerry, just being in the race this late in the game is an accomplishment few Republicans expected when Bush surged into a clear lead after the GOP convention in September. But the Democratic challenger turned in three strong debate performances and staunched the flow of undecided voters who had started moving into the president's camp.

Both sides agree the race is razor-tight, but they disagree over the impact of the debates.

"The Democratic base wasn't engaged before the debates and got engaged by the first debate," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Bush campaign. "Now they're more motivated. So the effect of the debates is now you have two bases more motivated."

But, he added, Bush benefits because "the debates raised more questions than they answered about Kerry."

Democrats, though, say the debates changed the fundamental dynamic of the contest.

"We're not sure all the ways these debates have reshaped the campaign until the end," said Democratic strategist Tom Donilon. "But we are sure they have reshaped it to our benefit."

He added that "the three debates undid what was $100 million in negative ads." Viewers, he said, did not see the sort of indecisive, uncertain candidate portrayed in the Bush campaign ads.

Kerry aide Joe Lockhart conceded that the debates did not push undecided voters into the Kerry column yet.

"What the debates did is they answered a lot of questions the undecideds had," he said. "Now, they are more negative on the president and the direction of the country. They don't want to vote for the president, but they had questions about Kerry."

Lockhart said the contest enters its final phase "in the middle of a pretty significant move in our direction." But, he added, "that doesn't mean we're necessarily going to win. It's still a tight race where either side could win."

The final push
To bring home victory, both candidates plan key speeches this week, with Bush going to New Jersey to talk about the war on terror and Kerry planning a series of addresses on important issues.

Mehlman called this "a strong message push" from the president, while Kerry aide Mike McCurry termed the speeches "our closing arguments."

The GOP message will emphasize the war on terror, hoping to impress upon voters the high-stakes nature of their choice while making Kerry look like a scary alternative. The Democratic closing argument will be that Bush has made wrong judgments and does not deserve to be rehired for another four years.

Both pitches have been on display on the campaign trail since the final debate in Tempe, Ariz.

"I am petrified of what it'll be like if Bush wins," said Carol Winterberg, a 61-year-old retired Des Moines, Iowa, teacher who braved the chill to cheer Kerry at the Iowa State Fairgrounds late last week. "People are without jobs. And more than that, I think he went to war to get Saddam (Hussein) for Daddy. I sometimes get physically upset at the thought of Bush winning."

Her husband, Gary Winterberg, a 63-year-old maintenance specialist for the Canteen Corp., patted her arm as she spoke.

He added: "I feel like the president has lied to us. I feel like Kerry is a savior. We sure need some help. We need someone to come in and take over the presidency. I feel we've gone to hell in a handbasket."

Passion for Bush was evident elsewhere. But so was the concern that his cause had been hurt by his debate performances.

"I'm a little worried," conceded Lois Keller, a businesswoman from Grant's Pass, Ore., who was there to welcome Bush during his visit Thursday.

"He makes our country safe. He doesn't care if everybody agrees with him. He does what he feels he needs to do for the good of the country," she said, personifying what analysts have dubbed the "security moms" who have helped Bush close a gender gap that once favored Democrats.

Locking up states
Both sides agree that the number of states in play has shrunk to about 12 down from as many as 19 earlier this year though they don't agree exactly on which ones are still up for grabs. But every list starts with the two most hotly contested states, Florida and Ohio, and includes Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, New Mexico, Iowa, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Elsewhere, Democrats think they can upset Bush in Colorado, while Republicans hope to stun Kerry in New Jersey.

Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt called New Jersey "a surprise state that's very close right now." He boasted that the Bush campaign has Kerry defending states that Democrat Al Gore won in 2000. "We are on offense and ahead in more blue states than they are red," Schmidt said.

Democrats scoff at this, noting that the president has failed to lock up such red states as Ohio and Florida.

Wittmann predicted Bush will adopt "a Halloween strategy" now of trying to scare voters away from Kerry in those states. Asked what the two candidates will be saying in the coming days, he replied, "From Bush, it will be 'liberal, liberal, liberal.' From Kerry, it will be 'change, change, change.' "

Maximizing turnout
Veteran political analyst Tom Mann of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution said the Republican uproar over Kerry's debate mention of Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter is a tip-off that the GOP wants to change the postdebate perception of the race.

"That is very telling," said Mann. "They are looking for any kind of opening now to change things. This is not a dynamic that favors them."

He said the debates shifted the contest, at least temporarily, from a referendum on the challenger to a referendum on the incumbent. If it stays that way, Mann said, Bush loses.

"Kerry is now the favorite. That doesn't mean something can't happen between now and the election. But the current dynamic favors Kerry," he said.

While Bush tries to change that on the stump, his party will be working to maximize GOP turnout in the key states.

With the race so close and relatively few people still undecided, the campaigns, the political parties and allied groups such as organized labor are focusing on turning out their most loyal supporters on Election Day.

"There is no muddy middle here," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. "I think this race was always going to get to equilibrium and things were going to close.

"I do believe that the ground game is going to be the most important aspect of the campaign," he said. "Our voters have tremendous motivation. The most dangerous place to be on Election Day will be between a Republican voter and a polling place."

The effort is just as intense on the Democratic side.

"We're kind of in the home stretch," McCurry said. "It's really a parallel effort to really drive home the message, do everything we're doing out here on the campaign trail and then beginning to do everything, as we go into the final days, to assist those folks that are out on the ground mobilizing the vote for us."

Copley News Service correspondents Toby Eckert and Finlay Lewis contributed to this report.