By Thom Patterson
(CNN) -- Campaigns know the drill - speed-dial voters, deploy new television ads, dispatch chief contenders for president and vice president to storm a handful of states. It's an all-or-nothing struggle where second place gets zilch and the winner gets the White House.
So tough is the fight in "showdown states" -- also called "battleground states" -- as the November 2 election closes in, that it's taken on the intensity of a war, rather than an electoral, campaign.
"It's just nonstop work to make sure that everybody's confident that we're prepared to do well here," says Dan Trevas, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party.
Trevas' Republican counterpart agrees and adds that Ohio's status heightens the stakes there. The state, with 20 electoral votes, "is always important in presidential campaigns," says Jason Mauk, communications director of the Ohio Republican Party. "But this year it takes on some special significance," because of the closely divided nature of the electorate.
Mauk says he has never seen two campaigns work harder to help their candidates win. "The candidates are in Ohio at least once -- if not several times - in a week," Mauk says. "Sometimes we have to mobilize party leaders and volunteers in a matter of hours."
Trevas agrees that the Ohio campaign is intense. "It's just - every day - waves and waves of concern, information, calls, questions," Trevas says. "I tell people it's almost like swimming in a hurricane."
Researchers and pollsters coined the term in the 2000 campaign to refer to what had been known for decades as "swing" states. They are generally states where the margins of victory in 2000 were thin (6 percent or less), where both major campaigns are devoting significant resources this year, and where statewide polling indicates that the race remains tight.
Alexander Keyssar, Harvard University professor of history and author of "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States," says battleground state is a metaphor for warfare and "also implies a place where a large amount of effort is being spent to win."
In the general election, CNN designated 15 showdown states that could help either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry win the 270 electoral votes required for victory. But the number of battlegrounds varies from analyst to analyst and CNN's Political Unit identified nine of the 15 states as being in play going into Election Day.
"I've been covering elections since 1972, and I cannot remember one when the concept of 'battleground states' was so central to the campaign," says CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "I can't remember the country being so clearly divided between favored states such as Florida and Ohio, and forgotten states such as Texas and California."
Analysts are reporting a sharper geographic definition of the vote than in the past - represented on election maps as red states (mostly Republican) and blue states (mostly Democratic). Those that are too close to call are purple - the battlegrounds.
As the hotly contested 2000 race reminded voters, presidential elections are won and lost on electoral votes, not individual ballots - making showdown states critical this year.
Besides Ohio, other states with large numbers of electoral votes, where both candidates have been stumping hard, include Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes and the epicenter of the 2000 election controversy, Florida, with 27 votes.
Michael Barone, co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," says before the nation was so evenly split in the 2000 election, it was easier for analysts to predict which states would go for which candidate. There were fewer states where the race was close, and those states were seldom critical in the electoral vote count.
Even after the Civil War, which politically polarized the nation along geographic lines, says Barone, "the only states in play were New York, Ohio and Indiana."