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High-Stakes Battle For The Big 3

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

Three states, two candidates, one week until Election Day. This is the math that dominates President Bush and Sen. John Kerry's campaigns. Since Election 2000, Republicans and Democrats have banked their aspirations on an electoral trinity: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

As the Big Three goes, so goes the nation.

Pennsylvania is a must-win for Kerry. Ohio is a must-win for Mr. Bush. And a victory in Florida would allow either candidate an immense buffer when polls close on Nov. 2.

To usurp their opponent's most vital battleground state, Mr. Bush has visited Pennsylvania most, while Kerry has visited Ohio more than any other state, since March 3. In fact, Kerry has also visited Florida twice as much as Mr. Bush.

However remote, there are electoral scenarios where both candidates can compensate for only winning one of the Big Three. If President Bush wins only Florida, a victory in two of the Small Three states – Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota – would offset the big electoral losses. But if Kerry can compensate by winning New Hampshire, West Virginia and possibly even Arkansas, he could afford losing Ohio and Florida.

Both cases, though, require the unlikely outcome of the remaining states backing the same party as in 2000. Since March 3, when Kerry became the clear Democratic nominee, Mr. Bush or Sen. Kerry visited a Big Three state in one out of every five campaign stops nationwide.

But now, there is less than a week until Election Day. Now, the Big Three's 25 million registered voters will most likely determine who wins the Oval Office. And below is how the electoral trinity breaks down.

27 Electoral Votes

"Nobody here trusts the polls," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "First of all, both parties want to have it close so they can make sure there is turnout."

Watch the Hispanic vote. Does it prefer a candidate by a large margin? And within that number, do Cubans stay heavily behind Mr. Bush? Do the more than one million registrants since 2000 turnout?

"Historically, a high turnout favors Democrats," MacManus says. "But we just don't know what the turnout will be like."

Each political party has equally registered about 500,000 voters, with possibly several hundred thousand new registrants made up of non-aligned voters, according to the Florida Department of State.

For Democrats, massive African American turnout is pivotal. In 2000, 70 percent of African Americans voted. During the 2002 gubernatorial election, only about 45 percent did, contributing to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's decisive victory.

"African American turnout is very key," MacManus says. "Again, you don't know, polls here show that Bush is doing better among that community."

A day after his appearance in Philadelphia, former President Clinton campaigned in two key cities to galvanize the African American vote. He was in Miami Wednesday night and is stumping in heavily-black Broward County on Thursday.

More than 10 million voters are registered in the Sunshine State. In 2000, fully 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In 1992, 83 percent of those registered turned out.

Turnout totals, including the two weeks of early voting, should reach, if not surpass the 1992 mark. With Mr. Bush winning Florida by 537 votes in 2000, both sides are taking nothing for granted in getting out the vote.

What the polls show is that either candidate could win Florida. A Zogby poll of 601 likely voters conducted Oct.22-25 placed President Bush with 48 percent of the vote and Sen. Kerry with 47 percent, well within the margin of error.

But a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 909 registered and 768 likely voters conducted Oct. 21-24 found that Mr. Bush had 51 percent of the electorate, compared to Kerry's 43 percent – a statistically significant lead.

Generally, Mr. Bush needs to dominate the electorate of the Florida Panhandle. Kerry needs to win South Florida, also by strong margins. What's left is central Florida. Conventional wisdom teaches that these mostly independent voters, which string the Interstate 4, are capable of swinging the election.

Since March 3, President Bush has visited Florida 15 times while Sen. Kerry has visited the state 26 times. Only Ohio has seen more campaigning.

"I do think that in the end, this weekend is critical. For the late deciders, I've maintained all along that if Kerry can change the subject to health care and pocket book issues, it helps them," McManus asserts.

"Both parties are hammering people to vote early," she adds. "Each side is worried about a major October surprise and they've got votes in the bag."

Florida allows voting two weeks prior to Election Day. By most estimates, including MacManus' own, as much as 40 percent of the electorate may take advantage of early voting.

"People are reacting very positively to early voting, the extended period has allowed election officials to figure out if they have bad phone lines, or not enough of phone lines, any problems," MacManus continues. "If all of this would have happened on Election Day we would have had Armageddon."

21 Electoral Votes

"I was at the Kerry and Clinton rally yesterday and the thing that I couldn't escape was not only the enormity of the crowd but that the buildings were literally rocking," says Don Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "For a party that has been worried about turning out its base in Pennsylvania, it was a godsend and improves the odds that Kerry can hang on."

Adds Kettl: "What matters more than anything else in Pennsylvania is the turnout of black voters -- in Philadelphia, in particular.

"That's where a lot the new registrations have come from, that's where the mobilization is happening, that's where the legal challenges are brewing and that more than anything is the key for Democrats."

There are about 800,000 new registrants in Pennsylvania, with the Democrats holding at least a 100,000 advantage on the voter roster, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Kerry needs these 100,000 to turnout. In 2000, 63 percent of voters turned out. In 1992, 82 percent. A turnout broaching 1992, as expected, would most likely serve Kerry.

"It's hard to see how Kerry wins without winning Pennsylvania," Kettl says. "You can imagine all kinds of mathematical games that can be played, but of the Big Three, Pennsylvania is the gotta-win for John Kerry."

To defend the traditionally Democratic state of Pennsylvania, Kerry needs to dominate Philadelphia. But Philadelphia's proximity to New York City, as well as historic landmarks like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, has brought national security to the forefront.

Al Gore won the state by 4 percent in 2000. But security concerns, plus Mr. Bush stumping here more than any other state, has put Pennsylvania back in play for Republicans.

"If you made a list of the top five issues, homeland security is the top 4 ½ issues … defense and Iraq just fly right to the top," Kettl emphasizes. "And you don't get the sense that Kerry has been able to break through on domestic policy issues."

Still, Kerry has a slight lead here in the polls. This week, a Zogby poll surveying 602 likely voters gave Kerry a three-point edge, 48 to 45 percent over Mr. Bush. Other polls have showed a similar lead for Kerry. But by statistical measure, the state is essentially neck and neck.

"This election is so close, if somebody sneezes, it could cause a problem," Kettl says. "Just imagine in Florida if somebody had conducted an ice-cream social around a couple of the voting booths last time around, it could have swung things the other way."

Both campaigns here, like in the other Big Three states, are now trying to exercise their base in these final days. This is what brought Kerry to downtown Philadelphia on Monday. It is what brings Mr. Bush to heavily Republican Lancaster County on Thursday.

"They are not trying swing swing-voters," Kettl says. "They are trying to turn out their bases to the polls. The swing states, at this point, are more about turning out the bases."

20 Electoral Votes

"The focus that both candidates have put on this state is absolutely amazing. It's as if both candidates are running for governor," says Herb Asher, professor of political science at Ohio State University. "We now know how the people of New Hampshire feel during the New Hampshire primary."

No Republican has become president without winning Ohio. To insure Mr. Bush wins the state, he must:

  • fend off Kerry dominance in the three largest counties.
  • poll even with Kerry in the southern Appalachian region.
  • dominate the electorate in the remaining smaller counties surrounding cities like Canton, Dayton and Akron.

    To insure a heavy turnout in the areas surrounding the smaller cities, Republicans successfully got an amendment to ban gay marriage on the Nov. 2 ballot.

    Republican hope such measures throughout the country will drive the 4 million Evangelicals who didn't vote in 2000, to the polls next week. And in Ohio, social conservatives must turnout en masse if Mr. Bush is to defend this state.

    "A Republican win will depend on whether the Republicans can get out, as Rove puts it, every last Republican voter, and every Christian conservative vote," Asher says. "As you talk about targets of opportunity for Democrats, you certainly talk about the African American community and the major cities."

    The three largest counties in Ohio where Kerry's showing must be as strong, if not stronger, than Al Gore are: Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus) and Hamilton (Cincinnati).

    "When we talk about Ohio politics in the past, you said the Democrats had to win Cuyahoga (Gore did), be competitive in Franklin County and it turned Gore carried it by a slight margin. And while Gore lost Hamilton County, he didn't lose it by the margin that Democrats often did," says Asher. "With respect to those three measures, Gore ended up passing all three but lost the state."

    This is why Asher emphasizes that Kerry has to dominate in the Appalachians Region. To do that, it will largely depend on if residents vote values or pocket book. Asher says in 2000, the voters went values and it was central to Mr. Bush's strong showing.

    In 2000, 63 percent of voters turned out. In 1992, turnout was 77 percent. Like Florida, turnout here is supposed to be equivalent to 1992 numbers. With more than 700,000 newly registered voters, it is unclear how such a massive turnout will breakdown.

    A Zogby poll conducted this week gave Mr. Bush 46 percent of the vote and Mr. Kerry 45 percent, a statistical dead heat. Other polls have similar findings: Ohio could go for either candidate.

    In 2000, President Bush won Ohio by 4 percentage points. But since then, the state has lost a quarter million jobs – the second most in America.

    Since early March, Kerry has visited Ohio 32 times hoping to capitalize on the state's economic downturn during Mr. Bush's first term. Mr. Bush has campaigned here 15 times during the same time span.

    Kerry hopes his ardent campaigning statewide will woo Ohio. If he does that, history teaches that Kerry wins the presidency.

    To Asher, "Kerry can win this state." Though the political scientist adds cautiously, "But turnout is critical."
    By David Paul Kuhn

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