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Race to Finish Grows Intense

Bush and Kerry dash through battleground states that probably will prove crucial. 'Nobody's got any margin for error,' an analyst says.

October 31, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

In its last days, the longest and costliest presidential campaign in history has come down to fewer than a dozen states that remain up for grabs.

As President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry flitted Saturday from one campaign rally to the next -- shadowed by the video specter of Osama bin Laden -- partisans began mustering their ground troops for Tuesday's big push, promising the greatest voter mobilization in U.S. history.

In battleground states, the TV airwaves crackled with a barrage of commercials -- so many that television stations had no time left to sell. One Democratic operative said half-jokingly that he might charter an airplane to tug pro-Kerry banners across the skies over Ohio and Florida.

The candidates, their wives and other surrogates spent Saturday hopscotching around the handful of states expected to decide the race, with a particular focus on the Midwest and on Florida, the state where a controversial recount decided the 2000 contest.

Neither Bush nor Kerry mentioned the taped comments by Bin Laden that had surfaced Friday. Rather, each reprised arguments they had made throughout the campaign, questioning one another's leadership capacity.

"The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror," Bush told supporters at his first stop of the day, in chilly Grand Rapids, Mich. "Sen. Kerry has chosen the path of weakness and inaction."

Kerry said he shared Bush's determination to hunt down Bin Laden, but renewed his assertion that the president erred by failing to send U.S. troops after the terrorist leader in late 2001.

"As I have said for two years now: When Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, it was wrong to outsource the job of capturing them to Afghan warlords," Kerry told a small morning rally in Appleton, Wis.

Despite the vast investment of time and an estimated more than $1 billion in spending, the presidential race has budged little since Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee last winter, launching an eight-month general election campaign. The contest has been essentially even, save for an occasional blip in the polls, ever since.

As the latest opinion surveys continued to show a race too close to call, uncertainty was one of the few things those on both sides of the race could agree upon Saturday.

"Anyone who tells you they know where this thing's going is a liar," said Brian McCabe, president of the Progress for America Voter Fund, an independent pro-Bush group. "That's one question I don't have an answer for."

McCabe added: "I don't even know if I'll have one Wednesday," referring to the prospect of another disputed outcome.

The bottom line -- capturing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House -- had campaign strategists sweating over an increasingly shrinking map.

Both sides believed that three states totaling 57 electoral votes -- Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin -- were virtually tied and could end up deciding the election.

Several other states remained in play, with one candidate or another enjoying an edge, but not enough to rest comfortably.

Along with Ohio and Florida, both of which he carried four years ago, Bush was fighting to hold onto New Hampshire and, to a lesser degree, Nevada. Both camps agreed that Bush's best chance of stealing a "blue" state from Democrats was in Iowa, which kicked off the campaign in January.

Wisconsin was one of the states Kerry was defending that Vice President Al Gore carried four years ago. Strategists for the Massachusetts senator expressed confidence that he would hold onto the others -- Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. Of those, the Bush team thought it had the best chance of stealing Pennsylvania, a state he has visited more than any other as president.

Some Republicans liked Bush's chances in another state that went for Gore -- Michigan. But most observers thought that state would stay in the Democratic column.

Both sides held out the possibility of an election night surprise -- Democrats talking up Colorado, or perhaps Arkansas. Republicans were eyeing the prospect of winning away Democratic Hawaii.

But neither side was counting on those longshots in constructing their winning scenarios.

In many ways, the election seems an extension of the knotted 2000 race, with many of the same states the most competitive.

"We were split down the middle before, and nothing much has happened to move us off that," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political scientist. Gore carried that state four years ago by just over 4,000 votes out of nearly 1.3 million cast.

Peter S. Hart, a Democratic pollster, said voter perceptions of the two candidates also were about the same as they were in the Bush-Gore matchup. "John Kerry has always had the advantage in terms of intelligence," Hart said, "while George Bush has the edge in terms of being easygoing and likable."

At bottom, many analysts agreed, the tightness of the race reflects the nation's fundamental divide.

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