ORLANDO, Fla. — When it comes to winning the voting war in this biggest prize of battleground states, both presidential camps agree: Florida may set a new national standard for ambitious, no-tactic-left-behind politicking.
With just five days remaining before election day, Republicans and Democrats are waging a historic get-out-the vote effort, with opposing platoons of volunteers dreaming up ways to get people to the polls -- including offers of baby-sitting services.
While both campaigns have flooded the state with often-negative television and radio ads, they know many voters dislike such messages. So they're taking the fight from Florida's airwaves to its doorsteps.
"I've never seen anything like this here or anywhere else," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist with the University of South Florida. "Knocking on doors is putting it mildly. This is an outright onslaught."
The reason for the intense campaigning is no secret. The race in Florida between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry is a microcosm of their nationwide battle: too close to call, with the result probably dependent on who best mobilizes his supporters.
As it did four years ago, Florida may once again determine who wins the White House. As a result, the atmosphere in the nation's fourth-most-populous state remains edgy as officials try to show they can run an election free of the turmoil and controversy that marked its 2000 vote count.
In that year's disputed election, 175,000 ballots -- many cast by minorities -- were disqualified after a series of election day gaffes. In 2004, activists have already filed nine lawsuits against Florida's new secretary of state, Republican Glenda Hood, claiming her office is once again trying to disenfranchise minority voters.
As activists face off with state officials, Bush and Kerry are treating the state with a do-or-die fervor, sparing no effort to shore up last-minute support. Since March, Bush has visited the state 13 times and Kerry 25; but many of those stops have come within the last few weeks.
A host of political luminaries from both parties -- Vice President Dick Cheney, chief Bush political strategist Karl Rove, former Vice President Al Gore and former President Clinton -- are converging on Florida as well for final pitches to its 11 million voters.
A new Los Angeles Times poll showed Bush with an 8-percentage point lead in the Sunshine State. Other recent polls have found a closer race.
Although Florida is no typical Southern state, given its diverse population of immigrants and retirees, it remains conservative at heart -- a place where about 20% of the ballots Tuesday could be cast by military veterans. While both of Florida's U.S. senators are Democrats, the Legislature and every other statewide office are controlled by Republicans.
Another GOP advantage is Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother. Jeb Bush enjoys a strong approval rating among state voters -- a favorable opinion that many analysts say could translate into votes for the president.
After Florida's series of hurricanes in August and September, President Bush showered more than $10 billion in aid to victims, boosting his image as a come-to-the-rescue public official.
Pollster Brad Coker also noted that Florida has supported only three Democrats for president in 50 years: Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Clinton, all Southerners.
"You look at Florida on paper and you see a GOP landslide," Coker said. "I'm scratching my head that it's so close. My only guess is the fierce anti-Bush vote this time around."
Coker and others stress that Bush's two weakest areas in nationwide polls -- the poor economy and the war in Iraq -- translate into strengths in Florida.
"Kerry can campaign on the jobs platform in Ohio, but in Florida the economy is much more resilient with tourism and high-tech," Coker said. "And with so many military bases, Florida is a hawkish state, so the antiwar theme also falls flat here."
Democrats say that Kerry support in Florida is fueled by the anger that many minority voters -- especially African Americans -- feel over the 2000 outcome. Polls also showed he benefited from his performance in the three presidential debates.
But pollsters say Kerry has much work to do to win Florida. For instance, although Gore came within 537 votes of carrying it, Kerry cannot count on matching the 2000 Democratic nominee's numbers among the state's Jewish voters. Some of that support was sparked by Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was the first Jew on a major-party presidential ticket.
Adding uncertainty to this year's race are 1.5 million new voters who have registered in Florida since the 2000 election, one-third of them as independents. And two-thirds of the state's voters weren't born in Florida, but relocated to the state for reasons including job opportunities and retirement.