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Registration Wars in Ohio, Florida Produce a Draw

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) enter the last few days of the campaign with Bush still holding onto a fragile lead nationally, but ahead in some states that Democrat Al Gore carried in 2000.[IMGCAP(1)]

These include Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico. Recent polling also indicates that in Minnesota, Kerry’s lead is down to less than a point. And in Hawaii, of all places, Bush seems to be ahead — in a state Gore won by 18 points.

In Michigan, the average of the last seven polls shows Kerry ahead by 4.2 points, but a Detroit News survey on Wednesday put him up by only 1 point.

On the other hand, Bush has virtually lost his lead in Ohio, which he carried by 3.5 percent in 2000. And in Florida, the average of the last six polls shows Bush ahead by just 1.2 percent.

Obviously, predictions are futile in this environment, with so much depending on turnout. But Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman makes an aggressive case that the GOP “ground game” is superior to the Democrats’.

He also pointed out, at a breakfast session with reporters this week, that Kerry has essentially conceded such states as Arizona, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, some of which originally were thought to be competitive.

Mehlman noted that, after Bush’s near-defeat in 2000, the GOP recast its entire approach to targeting, voter registration, direct mail, telephone and personal contacts.

“The most important thing you can do in politics,” he said, “is give someone a personal contact from a credible source. Not just a personal contact from a paid person on the ground, but someone in their church, their gun club or their PTA.”

The GOP effort worked well in the 2002 Congressional elections, when Republicans defied history to pick up both House and Senate seats in a new president’s first off-year election.

“Based on those lessons,” said Mehlman, “we’ve built a mass grassroots organization focused on voter registration and list development, so we could find out more about voters all around the country. We focused on an aggressive Web program and on building a large organization. We have 7.5 million activists. We’ve registered 3.4 million new voters. We have 1.2 million volunteers and 65,000 precinct chairs. This weekend we’ll make 14 million volunteer contacts.”

While granting that Democrats and anti-Bush independent 527s are also furiously registering and contacting voters, Mehlman said in an interview, “I think we have an advantage for three reasons. First, we’ve consciously focused on targeting high growth and new-mover areas. All they have done is make up for population losses in places like Cleveland.

“The second reason is quality control. Essentially what [Democratic 527] Americans Coming Together does is hire people to turn in postcards. They pay by number of registrants. We literally check every registration with the state’s voter file to make sure people actually live there.

“We’re also more volunteer-oriented. We also pay for some of it, but we pay per real resident, which I don’t think they do.

“Number three, registering people and turning them out is very different. We envelop the people we register with increased mail, increased phone calls, volunteers knocking on their door.”

Mehlman claimed that Republicans are well ahead of where they were in 2000, particularly in Ohio and Florida — although a check of voter registration statistics suggests that GOP gains in Florida actually are modest.

Since 2000, according to The Miami Herald, the GOP has registered 462,254 new voters and the Democrats 458,161. In 2000, the Democrats enjoyed a registration edge of 373,000. This year, as of Oct. 4, it was 369,000.

Mehlman said, “I think, demographically, we’re in a better position than we were four years ago. There’s been growth in the [GOP] fortress parts of the state, in the Fort Myers media market in the southwest, the Panhandle and Duval County [Jacksonville] than in the [Democratic] southeast counties, Broward, Palm Beach and Dade.”

However, statistics from the Florida secretary of state’s office show that since 2000, Republicans have increased their net new registrations by 73,365 in the 13 “stronghold” counties, while Democrats gained 90,921 in the four Southeast counties.

At the same time, Mehlman noted, a Washington Post/Univision poll of Hispanics in Florida shows Bush with a lead of 61 percent to 32 percent. He holds the traditionally huge GOP lead, 81 percent, among Cuban-Americans, but also is running even with Kerry among non-Cubans.

In Ohio, Mehlman said, “they don’t register by party, so what you have to look at is fortress Republican versus fortress Democratic counties. There are 17 counties where Democrats have won three out of four presidential elections and 57 counties where Republicans have won three out of four.

“In the Democratic counties, population is down 102,000. In the Republican counties, it’s up 79,000,” he said. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, though, says registration in the Cleveland-based county is up 160,000.

Of course, Democratic operatives have a wholly different take on the race from Mehlman’s. Kerry aide Joe Lockhart told me that his campaign’s polling indicates that undecided voters — 6 percent to 8 percent of the total — believe by a margin of 70 percent to 75 percent that the country is “on the wrong track,” indicating that they’re inclined to shift to Kerry in the end.

A USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that first-time voters prefer Kerry by a 10-point margin. And a poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard showed that college students prefer Kerry by 52 percent to 39 percent.

Kerry aide Tad Devine said at another Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week that, compared to 2000, the Democratic side is vastly better-financed and is able to go “toe to toe” with Bush in television advertising right up to the end of the campaign. “In 2000, the Gore campaign had 20 paid staff in Florida,” he said. “Now we have 25 offices. There’s no comparison in what we can do now.”

Mehlman, on the other hand, said the Bush campaign has 500 paid staff in Florida and “every single night we are making 30,000 personal contacts with voters.”

The bottom line is that the Electoral vote tally is just as close as the popular vote. Let’s hope somebody breaks out by Tuesday to avoid another 2000.

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