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Inside Politics

Little certainty in Ohio

Both sides work on message, turning out voters

By Greg Botelho

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America Votes 2004

CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNN) -- -- The political seesaw has tipped back and forth in Ohio, leaving the presidential race in this pivotal showdown state essentially even less than three weeks ahead of November 2.

Many experts say Ohio's 20 electoral votes could make the difference in this year's election -- a sense manifested in close polls and millions of dollars being poured into the state every day by both major campaigns and their supporters. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, Ohio races)

A Chicago Tribune poll, taken between October 9 and 11, puts John Kerry ahead of President Bush 49 to 45 percent -- a statistical tie, within the survey's plus or minus 5 percentage point margin of error.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted before the presidential debates between September 25 and 28, shows 50 percent of likely voters in Ohio favor Bush and 48 percent back Kerry -- again, within the margin of error, plus or minus 4 percentage points in this case. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, Poll Tracker)

With all the talk nationally about Iraq and terrorism, the economy takes top billing in Ohio.

"Ohio has not been doing well," said Matt Iorio, 19, a Case Western Reserve University student from Cleveland, recently named the nation's poorest large city by the U.S. Census Bureau. "That's going to be the biggest issue here."

But that fact has not sunk the incumbent president (as often happens when economic news is bad), nor drastically boosted his opponent, Kerry, perceived as strongest on such issues, according to most polls.

"These recent economic numbers show Ohio has the worst economy in the nation," said Herb Asher, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University. "But that's not something Democrats have taken great advantage of."

Back-and-forth race

Kerry led Bush by 6 percentage points -- 51 to 45 percent -- among likely Ohio voters in a mid-July CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. (State election officials have denied independent candidate Ralph Nader a ballot spot, although Nader this month sued to reverse the ruling.)

The race tightened to an effective dead heat in mid-August, before the president opened an 8-point lead -- 52 to 44 percent -- in a Buckeye State survey conducted soon after the Republican convention. New numbers indicate a close race yet again.

The two campaigns are working to rev up their base and win over "soft" supporters and undecided voters, tabbed at 3 to 5 percent according to many polls, but perhaps as high as 15 percent, Asher says.

"There is some number of people who are movable, and a move in one direction can change the outcome, even create a landslide," he said.

Absent other factors, Republicans currently hold a small edge in most Ohio elections, some 1.5 percentage points over whatever the national polls read, said Case Western Reserve University political science professor Alec Lamis.

"No question, the Democratic ticket has a slight handicap in Ohio," said Lamis. "This election is anchored by partisan attachments, and the edge goes to Republicans in Ohio."

Bush and his running mate, Vice President Dick Cheney, have campaigned extensively -- hitting mostly solid GOP areas in the state's west and south, but also talking to crowds in more Democratic areas like Canton and Cleveland.

"He's worked very hard on all fronts in the state," Asher said.

But that doesn't mean a Bush victory is a given. Kerry's showing in the first debate, Lamis said, "really jolted some people." (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the debates)

"Voters thought he's verbose, but he was crisp and on message -- a lot of people who hadn't focused on Kerry suddenly were," said Lamis. "The whole race was transformed. ... That debate really got a lot of people [to rethink their votes], and it was reflected in the polls."

Dueling messages

In recent surveys conducted by a Republican consulting firm, the Tarrance Group, 50 to 53 percent of respondents nationwide said the country is on the "wrong track," a figure that is consistent, if not slightly low, with exclusively Ohio polls, Lamis said.

"You can't disconnect the economic issues from Ohio," he said. "It's not just whether or not you are currently unemployed, but do you expect to be unemployed in the near future. There is a lot of unease about that, especially in the old manufacturing centers."

In discussing Iraq, Kerry often frames the $200 billion set for rebuilding and combat efforts ($120 billion has been spent thus far) in terms of how that high price affects Ohio residents who may "not have enough money for health care and other basic needs," said Asher.

"When he comes to Ohio, the economy really gets emphasized," Asher added. "They have incorporated the fact that Ohio is not doing very well into their strategy."

For a time, Bush touted progress, saying the economy had "turned the corner." When that didn't play well in Ohio, he shifted his strategy to acknowledge that more work needed to be done and stress that he had a strong, sensible economic plan. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the issues)

The president has continued to preach a positive economic message and pitch his plan. But, as exemplified by the strong terrorism and foreign policy theme of the GOP convention, he has put greater and greater emphasis on national security -- even in Ohio, Asher said.

"Bush benefits from [talk of terrorism and leadership]," added Lamis. "He was president when 9/11 happened, and he responded well in the immediate aftermath."

Intense focus

Ohio residents have had little escape from the election in recent weeks, pummeled by political ads, voter turnout initiatives and discourse about the candidates and issues.

The state has three of the top eight television markets -- Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus -- in terms of election-related advertising, said a report released Tuesday by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. The week of October 3-9, some 7,186 ads were aired statewide at a cost of $7,363,518, more than 60 percent of those sponsored by Kerry and pro-Democratic groups, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)

Many residents have thrown themselves into the political fray, said Dr. Mark Carlson, a professor and associate vice president for government relations at Case Western Reserve.

"The number of signs that have been placed in Ohio is astounding," said Carlson. "Neighbors have debate watches, fund-raisers. We've never seen anything like this."

Intense interest and a close race have compelled both parties to emphasize turnout, figuring that a few hundred votes either way could make the difference.

"Both groups intend to call [most] every single registered voter in the 72 hours prior to the election, to make sure they know where to go and what to do," said Brian Barrit, 21, of Zanesville, Ohio, who has worked with the Republican National Committee.

Bush has targeted rural and rapidly growing GOP bastions, in hopes of motivating core supporters, Asher said. Democrats, meanwhile, have hit urban areas, working to register new voters and excite existing ones to back Kerry.

"I think the Democrats have done a better job on voter registration efforts," Asher said. "Whether you can get those voters out on Election Day remains to be seen."

One wildcard, said Carlson, could be college students who have been heavily pursued from Cincinnati to Columbus to Kent to Cleveland. Carlson predicts this voting block will make a difference, even though turnout rates for young voters are historically meager.

Political experts agree that a clear winner has yet to emerge and -- given the many factors, such as turnout, that could tip the balance -- say it is very possible the race could remain a dead heat through Election Day.

"This is a volatile race," said Lamis. "The end result is unknowable."

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