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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

Ohio is central in campaigns' final days

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL REPORTER

NEW YORK - If the race for president were a football game, the game between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry would be early into the third quarter. Coming off a scoring drive here that lasted four days, culminating with what his backers considered a touchdown speech to accept his party's renomination, Mr. Bush has the momentum, though the contest remains a tie.

Now, with the traditional Labor Day start, the teams will settle down into an exhausting ground game that will eat up most of the remaining election clock. For the most part, the battle will occur between the 40-yard lines. After all, that's the middle of the political field - and it is in the middle of the country where most of the undecided voters can be found.

That is why voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, and a handful of other states will see near-collisions between the Bush and Kerry motorcades as they scour the same towns for the same "swing" voters. Both candidates stumped in Ohio yesterday, and either they or their vice presidential candidate will return to the state before the end of this week.

Public opinion polls show that, nationally, Mr. Bush has gained ground coming out of his convention, regaining a narrow edge. Polls in key states show the same thing. While Mr. Kerry used to hold an edge in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the race is dead even. In Ohio, Mr. Bush has increased his lead.

Democrats told reporters here last week that they are concerned that Mr. Kerry's post-convention "bounce" in public opinion polls had evaporated even before the GOP convention started here last week.

"Almost nothing you do before Labor Day, in the end, is going to have very much impact on voters' decisions in November, unless you do something really, really bad," said John Street, the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, speaking for the national party. "Pre-Labor Day activity almost doesn't count."

"My sense is that this [Kerry] campaign isn't much better or much worse than the last four or five presidential elections that came

"My sense is that this [Kerry] campaign isn't much better or much worse than the last four or five presidential elections that came

to town. In the end, we all pull it all together. We get our people out to vote, and we will win Pennsylvania" for Mr. Kerry, Mayor Street said. "We win these elections on the ground."

The key to the Democratic ground game, said Mayor Doug Palmer of Trenton, N.J., is to plug the presidential campaign into the local political networks of sitting mayors in key states.

"Four years ago, the Gore campaign was not as actively recruiting mayors. It's a fact. President Clinton, in his two campaigns, he recruited mayors." This year, Democratic mayors are again involved.

Karl Rove, senior adviser to the President, said Republicans nationwide are implementing their own grass-roots ground game unlike anything the GOP has ever attempted before. For months, they have been making millions of telephone calls to prospective voters who, through a sophisticated computer program, have been identified as likely to support Mr. Bush. Ohio volunteers have made more than 1 million phone calls.

Callers recruit those people to volunteer - 60,000 have said 'yes' in Ohio alone. A major effort has been made to register as many of those people as possible. Follow-up contacts will be made in the weeks before the election, he said, to make sure those new voters actually make it to the polls.

In terms of issues, Democrats have focused largely on shortcomings they see in Mr. Bush's domestic agenda, and in problems encountered in the war against Iraq. Mr. Rove said voters will understand the nation has been through tough times, including the 2001 terror attacks and a boatload of corporate accounting scandals.

"I think people understand that this President is working hard to get the economy growing but that the economy was dealt some shocks," Mr. Rove told Ohio reporters last week. "In the 90 days after 9/11, the American economy shed 1 million jobs."

The Bush campaign has found that national security is the key, but not the only, issue in the campaign.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a liberal Democrat, agrees. He said he is ignoring party labels and working for the President's re-election because he is a big fan of the Bush Doctrine: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

"What I say is, there is only one issue: the war on terrorism," said Mr. Koch in an interview at the convention last week. "I don't agree with George Bush on a single domestic issue, but the war on terror trumps them all."

Contact Fritz Wenzel at: fwenzel@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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