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The math needed to beat Bush (continued)

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Nor are the Republicans planning to stay put. In particular, the party is behind a major effort to identify evangelical Christian voters and get them out to the polls. Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru, has said that he estimates some three million evangelicals stayed home in 2000, costing Bush the decisive victory he thought was in his grasp. This time, the party is using tools such as anti-gay-marriage petition drives to identify social conservatives. "We’re going to find every Bush voter, we’re going to call them, we’re going to write them, we’re going to knock on their doors, and when the day comes, we’re going to physically take them to the polls," political strategist Ralph Reed, a former associate of the Reverend Pat Robertson’s, was recently quoted as saying in the New York Times.

Such intensive efforts, focused entirely on the swing states, may leave voters wondering where they can take refuge — especially in places like Davenport, Iowa, where Kerry and Bush nearly bumped into each other last week. Their events required so much security that they provided cover for three bank robberies. "It never ends here in Iowa," says Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen. "You’ve got candidate visits all the time. Your mailbox is full of stuff, both as a journalist and a voter. The real winners of all this are the television stations in the battleground states."

Or Ohio, which recently marked Bush’s 21st presidential visit. "Our public-affairs staff has been extremely busy, because every time you turn around these guys are coming through the state," says Mary Beth Lane, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.

Or Missouri, where Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, senses little payoff for the candidates’ frequent appearances. "It sure seems like the candidates like to visit," Houston says. "I don’t sense a lot of changing of minds."

HERE’S A nightmare scenario for you. In 2000, Bush won 271 Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, despite losing the popular election by some 500,000 votes. Because of population gains in the heavily red areas of the South and West, all Bush has to do is hold onto the states he won the last time around, and he’ll have 278 votes. This could happen even if Kerry runs up a greater popular-vote victory than Gore did four years ago, which he could do by capturing huge margins in ultra-blue states such as California and New York.

Not that that’s likely to happen. Joe Lenski, executive vice-president of Edison Media Research, which has done exit-polling for the Associated Press and the television networks (the company has also done market research for the Phoenix Media/Communications Group), says such a split-decision scenario is almost always checked by reality. "Those are little trends," Lenski says of the population shifts, "but when it comes to the actual operation of the Electoral College, one big, close state will determine the election." In other words, if Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, and/or Ohio, with its 20, switches from red to blue this November, nothing else is going to matter very much.

Back in Stratham, Bush was doing his best to make sure that New Hampshire, at least, stays solidly in the Republican camp. After paying tribute to a raft of local Republican officials, Bush launched into a 45-minute stump speech, working from notes and from memory. "I’m runnin’ because I know how to take a strong economy and make it stronger," he said, a line that no doubt plays better in a state with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate than it might in, say, Michigan (6.5 percent). He also offered a new rationalization for the war in Iraq: "A lesson of September 11th is that we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize." And in this most libertarian of states, he spoke in veiled, almost coded language to express his opposition to same-sex marriage: "We stand for institutions like marriage and family, which are the foundation of our society."

He closed, as he generally does, with an ode to 9/11, recalling his visit to Ground Zero several days after the terrorist attacks. "I remember a guy grabbing me by the arm.... He looked at me with bloodshot eyes and said, ‘Don’t let me down,’" Bush said, before ending, "I will do whatever it takes."

"Four more years! Four more years!" came the response.

After that, it was off to Kennebunkport — on the coast of the great swing state of Maine — for his nephew’s wedding.

"I think it’s great that New Hampshire is going to get a whole lot of attention," said D.J. Bettencourt, a 20-year-old Republican activist from Salem, as we were leaving. State Representative Richard Drisko, 76, a Hollis Republican, praised Bush’s grasp of Granite State trivia: "It seemed to me that he had more familiarity with New Hampshire than the times he was here before."

This is what the next three months are going to be like for John Kerry and George W. Bush: a constant, steady slog through a handful of targeted states, almost like a primary season with mosquitoes instead of snow, a national campaign waged as a series of local campaigns. That well-worn cliché — retail politics — is back for another go-round.

Sure, there will be mega-events that could tilt the election one way or the other. Bush could somehow blow it at the Republican National Convention later this month. Kerry could come off as a pompous bore in the debates. A terrorist attack could shuffle the deck. The negative ads could finally take a toll on one candidate or the other (or both). But in a country that, for the most part, has already made up its mind, it’s likely that the little things are going to be what matters in the end.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

page 3 

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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