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Both Sides in Big Push to Win Dead-Even Race

Politics: Even out-of-state Republicans are knocking on doors to swing Gore's home territory to Bush. Adding 250 votes per county is GOP goal.


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Two hundred and fifty votes, ahh, that is a number that makes Joe Bailey's eyes twinkle behind his rain-spattered glasses.

Four years ago, the Clinton-Gore ticket took Tennessee, Al Gore's home state, by a scant 45,616 votes.

This time around, the Republicans figure if they can squeeze out an extra 250 votes per county, they'll snatch the state's 11 electoral votes and, maybe more tantalizingly, a nice chunk of the vice president's pride.

Using President Clinton's slim victory as a guide, it would take 250 votes in each of Tennessee's 95 counties for the Republicans to prevail. This year's race is even closer than the 1996 contest here, with polls showing Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush dead even statewide.

That's exactly why Bailey, a 53-year-old Republican zealot from Oklahoma City, was walking in the rain in Memphis last week, knocking on doors in predominantly black neighborhoods. Campaign organizers sent him to Memphis, he said, in an attempt to attack the largest Democratic stronghold in the state.

"Hi. My name is Joe and I'm here from Oklahoma asking you to vote for Bush," he said as a woman leaned out the door and eyed him curiously. "Can we talk?"

In an eleventh-hour surge, hundreds of Republican volunteers are streaming into Tennessee in a gutsy, grass-roots effort to win votes the old-fashioned way: one by one.

The prospect of upsetting a native son has energized political operatives on both sides in key areas of the state like Memphis and surrounding Shelby County.

Gore needs Memphis. Because eastern and central Tennessee are so reliably Republican, the vice president needs a strong turnout here in the western part of the state, particularly among the African American voters who are his party's most loyal backers.

Otherwise he could lose his home state. Only one president, James K. Polk in 1844, was able to win the White House without winning at home. Polk also came from Tennessee.

'Honk for Bush' Signs Are Waved

For the last several weeks, red-white-and-blue-clad GOP operatives have canvassed inner-city neighborhoods, visiting black colleges and mobbing key street corners during rush hour to pump their fists and wave "Honk for Bush" signs.

The local Democrats, while admittedly caught off guard, are swinging back. They have enlisted the support of churches, unions and African American community groups to get out their votes. Their headquarters has a younger, noisier, grittier vibe than the Republicans'. Wooden poster stakes and rock-hard french fries are scattered on the floor next to mountains of buttons that say, "I didn't vote for his daddy either." College kids breeze in and out on their way to the city's neighborhoods.

"This is what we call retail politics," said John Ryder, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee. "With the election so close, it's more like a city council race than a presidential campaign."

Tennessee is known as "the Volunteer State" and there couldn't be a more apt motto this last week. Though both campaigns have been aided by out-of-state political mercenaries like Joe Bailey, the bulk of the ground war is being fought by local conscripts.

At the Memphis GOP headquarters, volunteers were making 3,000 phone calls a day. The strategy wasn't so much to swing undecided voters as to prod Republican loyalists to the polls.

Shelby County's 579,000 voters are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with 56% white and 44% black.

Only a hefty black turnout here will compensate for the reality that many people, especially conservative white voters, give Gore little credit as a native son.

"Shoot, that man wasn't even born here," said Memphis homemaker Jean Drumwright.

Farther Left Than Most Tennesseans

True, Al Gore was born in the District of Columbia, the son of a senator. Though he worked in Nashville as a journalist for four years and represented his state in Congress for the next 16, "the longer he's been away and the more nationalized he's become, the less people identify with him here," said William Lyons, a University of Tennessee political science professor.

His evolving positions on gun control, abortion rights and federalism have also gone farther left than those of most Tennesseans.

At the same time, the state has trended Republican. Now the governor, the two U.S. senators and the majority of the congressional delegation are GOP members.

At one Republican event Thursday, country singer Hank Williams Jr. whipped a crowd into a frenzy by singing, "This is Bush-Cheney country, 'cause we got our pride. And we don't believe in more taxes and lies."

Minutes later, four young men who said they were supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader began yelling to protest sanctions against Iraq. A crowd of people seized upon them and dragged them out of the room.

"Communists!" screamed a man in a Bush T-shirt.

In addition to party die-hards, special interest groups have joined the battle to get out the vote in Tennessee. Republicans are turning to the National Rifle Assn. and the Farm Bureau. Democrats are leaning on labor.

And nothing beats an appearance by the candidates themselves. Bush and Gore have visited Tennessee several times, and the vice president flew into Memphis on Friday for a late-night campaign stop. A surging crowd was waiting for him at a downtown square despite a steady rain that slipped between the trees.

"God bless you, Shelby County," Gore roared. "I need your help so I can fight for you."

Afterward, a TV reporter asked Gore how big he needs to win Shelby County if he is going to carry the state.

"Big," Gore said, and he stretched out his arms as wide as he could and laughed.

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