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On a Roll, Into Swing States

Kerry borrows from past lessons with a tour meant to court media, 'persuadable' voters.

August 02, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — John F. Kerry, keenly aware of the lessons from Democratic presidential campaigns past, is forging across 18 states in 15 days, intent on seeking out friendly local media and "persuadable" voters to build on the attention he gained with his party's nomination in Boston.

Kerry has reveled in large crowds across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan in the first three days of his tour. The candidate is plunging into crowds to touch hands, hanging out the window of his midnight blue bus to blow a last kiss to supporters and joking that he felt like the ugly duckling, standing alongside his two new traveling partners -- running mate John Edwards and actor Ben Affleck.

Behind the fun and optimism the Democrats are trying to project with the "Believe in America" tour, however, are political calculations made in earnest.

Kerry strategists took months planning the route that will take the Massachusetts senator across America. ("From Sea to Shining Sea," as a bonus campaign slogan suggests.) Their strategy began with a focus on battleground states, narrowed to counties that might lure favorable coverage from local television reporters and finally pinpointed communities filled with undecided voters.

Kerry's odyssey is modeled on tours by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, which helped sustain their popularity after their nominations. It's also in sharp contrast to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, whose decision to hunker down in his home state after his 1988 nomination was seen as contributing to the loss of his post-convention 17% advantage over George H.W. Bush.

Kerry's message -- a stronger defense and better alliances abroad, combined with more jobs at home -- prompted some swing voters this weekend to give him a serious look.

"I'm 34 years old and I've never voted before," said Danielle Evans, an assembly line efficiency engineer, raised in a Republican household, who came to see Kerry and Edwards in Scranton, Pa., on Friday. "I think this year it can make a difference. I hope Kerry will win."

Her husband, Jay, a civil engineer, will hit his one-year anniversary without a job today. And he's fed up. "I keep hearing we are getting jobs and the economy is better, and that's a ... lie," said Evans, who lives in nearby Wilkes-Barre. "I only got [an unemployment] check for six months, so I'm not even a statistic any more."

Bush toured the same region Saturday, demonstrating the importance of the Ohio River Valley. Besides describing the president as a strong wartime leader, Republican surrogates continued waging their primary line of attack: that the Massachusetts senator has a thin legislative record and has waffled on the war in Iraq.

All but one of Kerry's seven stops this weekend fell in counties where the Democrats either finished barely ahead or lost to Bush four years ago, generally by fewer than 10 percentage points.

At each stop, the candidates piled out of the buses and jumped on makeshift stages, along with their wives, children, Affleck, and local dignitaries such as Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Ohio Sen. John Glenn. Sizable crowds greeted the Democrats, including an estimated 15,000 for a late-night rally in front of the brilliantly lighted Capitol of Harrisburg, Pa.

Forays into even such conservative-leaning areas (Bush took the surrounding county by 9% in 2000) make sense this year, said Kerry spokesman David Wade. "They have lost a whole lot of jobs and they have many sons and daughters in Iraq whose tours have been extended," he said. He noted that 170,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ohio "so we think we will do well."

Kerry's staff first began discussing in March how to follow the Democratic convention. They settled on the sunny "Believe in America" slogan because, aides said, it was important to express Kerry's values.

That emphasis makes sense, said one pollster who has interviewed swing voters in Colorado and Oregon. Swing voters who are focusing on specific issues "already tend to be with" the Democrats, the pollster said, "but people who remain to be convinced are focused on values and the question of 'Who is Kerry?' "

When plotting their route around western Pennsylvania, Kerry strategists decided to stop in Greensburg, an hour southeast of the capital. Bush won the surrounding county by almost 6% in 2000, but Clinton's two victories there made it clear the area could be fertile ground for a Democrat, Kerry's aides said. Greensburg also offered a picturesque backdrop, a historic railroad station and the prospect of interviews with Pittsburgh TV affiliates.

Despite a persistent rain, about 4,000 people packed a parking lot in front of the stage and dotted a hillside beyond. Kerry drew a roar of approval when he compared Bush to Depression-era President Hoover.

It wasn't readily evident from her appearance, but 43-year-old insurance claims agent Vickie Rowe could have been one of the most important people in attendance.

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