Closing arguments prepared in tied race

Election 2004


WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sprinted toward the finish of the first post-Sept. 11 presidential campaign yesterday with the terrorism issue squarely in their sights and the contest a virtual tie.

Osama bin Laden's videotaped warning to Americans added an element of uncertainty to already shaky pre-election calculations on both sides. Voters ina handful of battleground states, the scene of fierce campaign competition since the spring, are likely to decide the election.

A Sun analysis shows Kerry leading in 17 states and the District of Columbia with 238 electoral votes, and Bush ahead in 28 states with 234 electoral votes.

That leaves five tossup states with 66 electoral votes, enough for either to garner the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

Both men plan appearances today and tomorrow in the largest battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin - as one of the longest, most expensive and most fiercely fought races in history comes to an end.

Democrats said they expected most voters who make up their minds on Election Day to choose the challenger, a typical pattern in contests that involve incumbents. But privately, some worried that the movement hadn't begun.

Bush's slight edge in national polls, despite low job-approval ratings and other indicators that usually foreshadow defeat, pointed to another historical trend: the unwillingness of Americans to dump their president in a time of war.

Unusual eleventh-hour scheduling decisions underscored just how tight the election could be and how desperately both sides were competing for advantage.

Vice President Dick Cheney will fly almost halfway across the Pacific for a rally in Honolulu late tonight. Hawaii, with just four electoral votes, has rarely gone to Republicans in presidential elections. But demographic shifts, and what some Democrats described as neglect by the Kerry campaign, have put the state in play.

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, campaigned yesterday in independent northern Maine. His quarry: a single electoral vote that, by state law, goes to the ticket that carries the 2nd Congressional District, which gave maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot his strongest showing in the country in 1992 and 1996.

Besides the presidency, control of both houses of Congress is also up for grabs Tuesday. Republicans are expected to retain their majority in the House of Representatives, where relatively few seats are expected to change hands.

Republicans are slightly favored to keep their narrow Senate majority. But Democrats insist that they have a good chance of springing a takeover, especially if voter turnout is high, as many in both parties expect.

At least seven of the 34 Senate contests are considered tossups, with Republican-held seats at risk Tuesday in Alaska, Colorado and Kentucky. Democrats are trying to hold seats in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Dakota, where Minority Leader Tom Daschle's job is on the line.

As Bush neared the end of his re-election bid, he continued to highlight the stakes in the fight against terrorism, the long-planned centerpiece of his closing argument to wavering voters.

Bush contends that America needs his "consistency and strength" at this turbulent time, a message reinforced by his campaign commercials, which have attacked Kerry as a dangerous leadership choice that the country cannot risk.

"The decision comes down to who do you trust," Bush said at a rally in Green Bay, Wis.

The Democratic challenger, meanwhile, renewed his criticism of Bush's handling of the global fight against terrorism, repeating his accusation that the president had chosen to "outsource" the hunt for bin Laden and calling the war in Iraq a deadly diversion that has allowed the al-Qaida leader to remain at large.

Kerry, who has been on the defensive over national security issues, said at a stop in Appleton, Wis., that Americans are united in their determination to "destroy, capture, kill Osama bin Laden and all of the terrorists."

A study last week by the Pew Research Center found that Kerry had made substantial gains among swing voters who made up their minds over the past month, with opposition to the Iraq war a major factor working in the Democrat's favor. But the study also found that more of the remaining undecided voters believe that the United States made the right decision in going to war, which could work in Bush's favor.

If late-deciders vote, they are likely to cast their ballots based on candidates' personal characteristics rather than issues, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"It's who talked to them last or what they've seen last," he said. "It's not `Iraq is a mess' or `Iraq is a place we ought to be.' These are the `I-trust-this-one' or `I-feel-more-comfortable-with-that-one' kind of voters."

The latest public polling offered conflicting evidence about movement toward one candidate or the other as the race headed into the final weekend.

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