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Bush, Kerry Focus on Hotly Contested Midwestern State  - 2004-09-30

In this year's U.S. presidential campaign, there are a handful of states where polls show the race is too close to call. The midwestern state of Wisconsin is one of these so-called swing states, or battleground states. Many voters are waiting to see how President Bush and John Kerry perform in their debates before making their choice.

Wisconsin is being flooded with political advertising, especially on radio and television.

The ads for President Bush stress his leadership in the war on terror and accuse Senator Kerry of being indecisive.

Kerry ads emphasize alleged mistakes made by the president and the cost of the war in Iraq.

Wisconsin has an almost equal number of Democrats and Republicans, but University of Wisconsin political science professor Kenneth Mayer says it is another group that attracts the candidates' attention.

"There have been some statewide surveys that show that the number of people who do not say they are affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party can run 25-30 percent, which is a little bit higher than what you see in other states like, California or New York," he explains.

Professor Mayer says Wisconsin truly is a swing state, in the sense that it has swung from one political side to the other throughout its history.

"The state has what you might call a mixed political tradition. It has a strong progressive streak, reflecting the historical traditions of Robert LaFollette, probably the most famous politician in Wisconsin history, but we are also the state that elected Joseph McCarthy," he notes. "Fifteen years ago, we had a wildly popular Republican governor and a strongly Democratic legislature. Now, we have a moderately popular Democratic governor and a strongly Republican legislature. The state is really divided along those traditional dimensions."

Making it even more difficult for pollsters and politicians are the many Wisconsin voters who remain undecided. Some polls indicate that as much as seven percent of the electorate is undecided.

Dairy farmer Pat Smith says he wants to hear both candidates in the three scheduled presidential debates before making up his mind once and for all.

"Probably close to the election, after the debates. I got ideas, but I can kind of swing. I kind of know, which way I want to go, but I need to hear a little more," he says.

Mr. Smith says the economy is his major concern. He is also concerned about health care. He is currently covered under the policy of his wife, who has a job nearby, but he worries about what would happen if she lost her job.

The war in Iraq also looms large for many voters, but they are evenly split between those who see President Bush as the stronger leader, and those who believe Mr. Bush has made major errors, and that Senator Kerry would do a better job.

As both parties spend millions of dollars trying to attract undecided voters, some citizens are working hard to register new voters. Nicole Miller is trying to get young people, many who have never voted before, to participate in this year's election. She says the close vote in the last presidential election in 2000 has made many people realize that every vote does count.

"It gives us a lot of leverage, like when we are trying to register people, we can say, 'You know, the last election was really close.' And with politicians paying so much attention to Wisconsin, you know, that it is important for us here in Wisconsin, to register people to vote, and get them out there voting," she says.

As for turnout on election day, the University of Wisconsin's Professor Mayer says the state is always a leader.

"Voter turnout nationwide will probably be somewhere between 50 and 55 percent. The turnout in Wisconsin in national elections routinely runs 15 to 20 points higher than that," he notes. "One major reason is that we have same-day registration. You can show up at the polls, and if you have lived in the ward for 10 days, you can vote. So, that makes it so much easier."

But Professor Mayer says Wisconsin is also a state where people take such civic duties as voting very seriously.

"There is a strong sense of civic commitment here. People are devoted to what I call the public sphere," he says. "They are engaged, they are involved, they are committed to their communities and their cities and towns."

Wisconsin has only 10 electoral votes, making it somewhat less important than larger swing states like Pennsylvania or Florida, but in a close election, every vote will count. In the United States, the presidential election is not decided by the popular vote. Each state has a certain number of Electoral College votes, based on its population. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes.

Currently, the candidates are concentrating on Wisconsin as part of a group of battleground states clustered around the upper part of the Mississippi River. Of those states, President Bush has a slight lead in Wisconsin and Iowa, but Senator Kerry is expected to win Minnesota. With more than a month to go before the election, however, these swing states could swing again, and no one can safely predict, which candidate will win which of these states in November.