WAKEFIELD, Ohio -- John Kerry, locked in a dead heat with President Bush just over two weeks before Election Day, is finally getting to ask voters the question he has been wanting to pose all along.
Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Kerry, his candidacy bolstered by strong performances in three closely watched presidential debates, is in the throes of an intensive push to turn voters against Bush as he reminds them of the mistakes he says the president has made. Kerry plans in the coming days to paint the president as a hopelessly out-of-touch leader who has cruelly turned his back on middle-class families in favor of rich and powerful interests, while presenting himself to voters as a strong alternative who cares about ordinary people.
His goal: to hammer home a message that appeals to undecided voters in the closing days of the race, even as his campaign and Democrats across the country push hard to turn out supporters on Election Day.
Leading up to Election Day, senior adviser Mike McCurry said, voters will see "a parallel effort" by Kerry "to really drive home the message" while at the same time helping grass-roots organizers, including independent groups that have launched an unprecedented voter registration effort to get people to the polls Nov. 2.
Dissatisfied with Bush
All along, national polls have shown a public dissatisfied with the course Bush has set -- from the war in Iraq to his economic policies. But Kerry has often found himself on the defensive against Bush's attacks that he was a flip-flopper, a posture that many Democrats feared would prevent him from taking advantage of the discontent to sway voters.
Now, having found his footing in the debates, Kerry sees a chance to convince voters that they would be better off with him in the White House.
"It's a window of opportunity right now, to really sort of close the deal with the undecided voters," said David Wade, a Kerry campaign spokesman.
Kerry is seeking to win over voters in swing areas and to mobilize his base in Democratic strongholds. He is also venturing into Republican-leaning areas in battleground states, looking to cut into Bush's advantage -- even if it's by only a few percentage points -- to bolster his chances.
He campaigned yesterday in Greene County, Ohio, which Bush won by a whopping 20 percentage points in 2000, firing up about 2,500 supporters in the Xenia High School gym as he talked about "the great truth gap between what this administration tells you and what's really happening."
Later, he stopped in Jeffersonville to hoist some babies and pick out colorful gourds at a picturesque pumpkin patch in a county Bush won by 8 points in 2000.
A few dozen Kerry supporters had gathered outside the home of Mick and Larry Garringer to catch a glimpse of the senator. As Kerry's motorcade pulled away, another couple stood on their broad front lawn a few houses away holding a chalkboard that said "George W. Bush -- 4 More Years," a testament to the area's voting tendencies.
"We're not trying to win some of these counties we are going to today," said McCurry. "But if you can peel off some of that [Bush] support ... that could be very important."
Part of the game plan involves encouraging loyalists whose states allow them to vote early to cast their ballots before Nov. 2, so that they can use the crucial last days of the race to help persuade those who are less motivated to turn out for Kerry. One such state is Florida, which tilted the 2000 election to Bush.
No matter what Kerry's strategy is in these final days, most insiders say they believe the result largely will come down to each campaign's "ground game" -- how successful they are in turning out supporters on Election Day.
Like Bush, Kerry will focus in the coming weeks on hotly contested battleground states, with his most intense efforts here and in Florida, two swing states that the president won in 2000, and where polls show the race essentially tied.
The Democrat is stressing domestic issues, hitting Bush hard on what Kerry calls the "middle-class squeeze," a theme that faults the president's domestic record for the pressure families face from the rising costs of health care, tuition and gasoline.
Campaign strategists say they believe Kerry captured the attention of undecided voters during the presidential debates, coming across as a strong challenger to Bush. Now, they say, Kerry needs to shine a spotlight on the choice he wants voters to see on Election Day, between choosing four more years of Bush and making a fresh start with him.
"We have got to press as hard as we can in this coming week to define that choice," McCurry said.
Sign of progress