Polls show dead heat in crucial Ohio

Kerry visits swing state

Bush has focused more on shoring up Fla., Pa.

Election 2004

October 20, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LADY LAKE, Fla. - President Bush woke up yesterday at a resort in St. Petersburg Beach, then rumbled north, addressing voters in St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor, New Port Richey and Lady Lake.

The day's message was clear: Bush cares about Florida.

But how does he feel about Ohio? While Bush spent three of the last four days in the Sunshine State, he has not stopped in Ohio - a swing state with 20 electoral votes - since Oct. 2.

Bush's absence would not be stunning except that only 13 days remain before Election Day, and Bush's political maestro, Karl Rove, considers Florida and Ohio two of the most prized swing states still up for grabs.

"They're the two big battlegrounds that everyone agrees on," Rove said in an interview last weekend.

Conventional wisdom is that the candidate who takes two of the big three swing states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with 68 electoral votes among them - will take the White House. Moreover, no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.

So why has Bush stayed away? Aides say the president is spending more time in Florida because he was unable to campaign here last month, after the state was pummeled by hurricanes. During that time, they say, Bush visited Ohio frequently, often on bus tours.

Bush has also made himself a fixture in Pennsylvania, which he lost to Al Gore in 2000 and has visited more than 30 times as president. Aides said Bush had more work to do to shore up support in Pennsylvania than in Ohio, which he won by 3.6 percentage points four years ago.

"We feel very good about our grass-roots organization in Ohio," said campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. "Pennsylvania is a state we lost by 200,000 votes in 2000. Florida is a state that was battered by horrible hurricanes, and political activity was put on hold."

But Democrat John Kerry's aides put a different spin on Bush's travel.

"All the evidence has been that every time the president goes to Ohio, every time the president goes there with his rose-colored glasses, ... their numbers go down, because people in Ohio are going to believe their own eyes, not the president's rhetoric," said Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade.

The University of Cinncinati's Ohio Poll showed a third of the state's voters considered the economy the most important issue of the presidential campaign - not a surprise in a state that has lost 237,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years. And Wade said the state is feeling the strain of the extended National Guard and Reserve deployment in Iraq.

"All the evidence is that the more visits by John Kerry to Ohio, the better we do," Wade said. "You'll see us spend an awful lot of time there." Kerry stumped in Dayton last night, with plans to hunt tomorrow in Youngstown and then campaign in Boardman.

Results of two polls released yesterday show the race in Ohio is a statistical dead heat. An ABC News poll showed Kerry leading Bush, 50 percent to 47 percent, with 2 percent for independent Ralph Nader and 1 percent undecided. And the Ohio Poll found Kerry leading Bush, 48-46, among likely voters. The latter in September had Bush up 11 percentage points.

Vice President Dick Cheney visited Ohio yesterday, and the Bush campaign has been advertising there aggressively. The president will make his first visit to the state in 20 days on Friday - a short stop in Canton on the way from Pennsylvania to Florida.

Alexander Lamis, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said Bush's recent absence from Ohio is probably the result of a calculation that there are more persuadable voters remaining elsewhere. He said the campaign will get a bang for the buck if Bush comes later - and often - mobilizing voters in the final days of the race.

"Florida is a much more volatile state," he said. "Ohio has a much more stable political environment."

But Lamis said he is surprised that Bush has spent no time in Ohio for three weeks, while landing often in Pennsylvania. "Ohio is just so close," he said. "And I think Kerry is going to win Pennsylvania unless there is some dramatic change. So, going to Pennsylvania that much is a waste."

Meanwhile, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released yesterday showed the presidential race dead even, with Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent among likely voters. Last month, the same poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, showed Bush leading Kerry, 50 percent to 46 percent.

Kerry and Bush spent yesterday exchanging charges on Social Security.

Campaigning in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Kerry delivered a stinging indictment of Bush's economic record and accused the president of launching an "all-out assault on Social Security" during his term and plotting to undermine the entitlement program if he is re-elected.

Bush, in Florida, accused Kerry of trying to scare people and misrepresenting Bush's plans for Social Security and the military draft.

"My opponent will say anything he thinks that will benefit him politically at the time," Bush said. "I will do what I've said I will do. We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors. We will not have a draft. We'll keep the all-volunteer Army. With your help on Nov. 2, the people of America will reject the politics of fear."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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