With just over two months to go before the presidential election, the contest has essentially been decided in much of the country. In states which are overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat, many voters have already made up their minds. But in some states, the registered membership of the two parties is so evenly balanced that independent voters can be the deciding factor in which candidate gets that state's electoral votes? and perhaps the presidency.
Not surprisingly, the candidates are focusing most of their time and attention on these swing voters in the so-called battleground states. One of the campaign front lines is Ohio, where voters have picked the next president in all but one election since the 1950s.
Midwest states like Ohio are better known for bucolic settings and once-thriving factories than for celebrity sightings. But a few weeks ago this Cleveland suburb might have been mistaken for the Hollywood Hills.
An elegant house party for about 200 paying guests included several celebrities, who flew into the heartland to support Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry. A few of the names were A-list stars.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you, Miss Susan Sarandon...," said an emcee at the party.
The actress is well known for her roles in such movies as Thelma and Louise and Dead Man Walking. But she said she came to Ohio as a parent, concerned about the country's future.
"I'm just here as a mother, a mother who understands that the future for my children is completely dependant on what happens in this state, and most likely with that group of swing voters who are independent thinkers and who vote issues and not personalities," she said.
Judging from the dozens of visits the presidential candidates have made to the state, they appear to agree that Ohio voters could decide the election.
The reason Ohio could make the difference is because support for Republicans and Democrats here is evenly balanced. That's the case in about 16 other states? University of Akron professor John Green says these are the so-called battleground states, where presidential winners are decided by razor thin margins because partisanship fails to dominate public sentiment.
"And what happens from election to election, is that the people in the middle, the independents, tend to swing to the Democratic side or the Republican side, oftentimes on the basis of the personality of the candidates, or the particular issues or salient events that may have occurred in the campaign," he said.
While the state is evenly split, it is far from uniformly divided. Susan Sarandon spoke in Northeast Ohio where Democrats dominate... a few hours south, there are more Republicans and voters like Tom Miller, who sports a "Steelworkers for Bush" T-shirt, even though his union is supporting John Kerry.
He also wears the shirt on the floor of the Timken Company steel mill where he works. Last month, company officials who have contributed to President Bush's re-election effort - selected him and nine other employees to ride with Mr. Bush as his campaign bus toured the region. Mr. Miller says he was awed by the president's words and actions.
"The first thing he did, he thanked us for coming," he said. "There was one lady still standing. He got up from his chair, and she said, 'I'm not taking your chair, Mr. President' and he goes, 'I said sit.'"
While Tom Miller will be voting for the President in November, many of his co-workers who live in the gritty industrial town of Canton, Ohio about 50 kilometers north...will vote Democrat. They worry that the president's tax cuts and his foreign policies are responsible for devastating the economy? especially in Ohio, which has lost 200,000 jobs since Mr. Bush took office.
Outside the Timken steel plant at quitting time, most union workers say they support John Kerry. But Danny Dorak isn't so sure. He's the epitome of the swing voter both campaigns are trying to reach. Mr. Dorak says he's torn between his religious beliefs...and his livelihood.
"I'm a Democrat myself but I'm not very happy with our candidate," he said. "The biggest thing that I've always voted for is that it seems that when the Democrats were in there, we seem to work... and it's kind of hard trading off but I got to stay with my religious beliefs."
Danny Dorak is so conflicted he says he might not vote for any presidential candidate in November. Both parties fear that swing voters will stay home this election, but their goal is to persuade as many people as possible to head to the polls.
Political scientist John Green says undecided voters like Mr. Dorak, as well as those who aren't registered, are targets for both campaigns. But the professor says it's difficult to find a message that motivates these potential voters.
"The very fact that we have so many people who haven't made up their mind here at the end of a very bitter campaign that's been going on for a number of months indicates that these folks are deeply conflicted," he said. "They like some things about President Bush, they don't like other things? they have similarly ambivalent feelings toward Senator Kerry. It's a little bit difficult to predict how they'll move as a group."
As long as their response can't be predicted, political parties and national groups will continue to reach out to them. Bring Ohio Back, the group that sponsored Susan Sarandon's trip to Ohio, will spend $1.2 million to bring more celebrities through the state next month, this time on a voter registration bus tour. The deadline for registering new voters in Ohio is October 4.