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Hawaii Gets New Status in US Presidential Election

The small state of Hawaii is suddenly a big player in this week's U.S. presidential elections. The race in Hawaii is too close to call, making Hawaii a battleground state. It's caught the candidates by surprise, causing both parties to do last-minute campaign stops to the islands.

Hawaii is usually off the beaten path for presidential campaigning. It's so far away from the Mainland. And because Hawaii is five hours behind the East Coast, the presidential elections are usually decided before the polls here close. Also, Hawaii is a strong democratic state.

But polls of Hawaiian voters in the last week indicate a dead heat between Republican President George Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry. This has stirred the two parties to do last-minute campaigning here. They're bombarding Hawaii with media ads. And top party officials are making last-minute stops to the Islands to woo Hawaii's four electoral votes.

Vice President Dick Cheney appeared at a Republican Party rally in Waikiki. And former Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Kerry's daughter, Alexandra, spoke at a Democratic rally in Honolulu.

"This is a race in which every single vote counts," Mr. Gore said. "And Hawaii's voice will be heard more loudly and clearly than in any presidential election in history. The course of our nation can be determined by Hawaii's vote."

"I understand my father's character. I understand his integrity, I understand his honesty," said Alexandra Kerry. "And I understand his commitment to other people, to your community and to the state of Hawaii."

Hawaii is not accustomed to being in the national political spotlight. Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii, says Hawaii has historically been a minor player in presidential elections.

"We're not used to this at all. I've spent some time this campaign year in Wisconsin and Florida where it's totally on the other end of the spectrum where you're inundated all the time," he said. "It's like the candidates are living with you. And here it's a quiet place where there's little campaigning going on. And it was the assumption that the Democrats were going to carry the state. So this is in presidential campaigns a backwater."

Hawaii has only voted for two Republican presidents since statehood - Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mr. Gore beat Mr. Bush here in 2000 with more than half the votes.

But Hawaii's Republicans in recent elections have slowly gained momentum. Two years ago, Hawaii elected its first Republican governor in 40 years. And the party has been winning more seats in the state legislature.

Milner doesn't believe Hawaii is turning Republican. After all, Democrats still fill Hawaii's four congressional seats. But he says when it comes to voting for president, Hawaii favors the incumbent. And he says the president's campaign message has resonated with Hawaiian voters.

"The war on terrorism changed the nature of political discourse and particularly changed the kind of advantages that Bush could bring into a campaign that he couldn't before," he said. "It's very open-ended, it's very frightening. We know Bush does much better in the polls on terror issues than he does on Iraq issues. In the absence of both candidates coming here and presenting themselves, Bush had the advantage because he's a known quantity."

Whatever the reason for the close race in Hawaii, there's one clear lesson for presidential candidates: Don't take Hawaii's voters for granted.