MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Vern Bass stood in the gum wrappers and dusty grass at the intersection of Routes 9 and 11, smiling, pumping his Kerry-Edwards sign, demanding a reaction.
"Uh-oh, camouflage," said the Kerry campaign staffer, looking at the driver of a red pickup, who slowed to give him the thumbs-down. A young woman in a green Saturn with a lei hanging from the rear-view mirror smiled and leaned on her horn. An old man in a tan Cadillac with a yellow ribbon decal shook his head no. And a towheaded boy leaned out the passenger window of a silver Kia to shout, "That's who we're voting for."
Terry Cochran of Bunker Hill, W.Va., who picked up lawn signs at Bush headquarters, says the election is important for security.
Informal, but there it was: the evenly split response that has put fire in the bellies of Kerry backers from Montana, where Bass is from, to Montgomery County. Polls show Kerry within striking distance of Bush, who in 2000 upset seven decades of Democratic tradition by narrowly winning the state.
The opportunity, and the tight race nationally, has brought Democratic volunteers pouring into this craggy, hard-luck state, working the phones and bumping along the back roads to get out the vote. After pulling campaign staff from here, the Kerry campaign has begun advertising again and is said to be mulling a last-minute appearance by the senator.
"We're going down swinging, kicking, screaming, spitting and cussing," said Dan Rupli, a Kerry volunteer who has come from Frederick to help. "We're just not prepared to give it up."
Martinsburg is a town of 15,000 with white-painted colonial facades in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, where clusters of small towns have become Washington exurbs, and where people are divided right down the middle on whom they're voting for.
This region, fuller every year of people who don't depend on the mined-out interior for jobs, was crucial to Bush in 2000, when he won 52 percent of the state's vote -- and its five electoral votes -- with an appeal to gun owners, social conservatives and coal workers afraid of Al Gore's environmentalist agenda.
The Democratic headquarters is on West King Street, the GOP headquarters is on North Queen Street, and in between is the courthouse, where the line of early voters snaked out the door.
"Let me tell you, it's been constant," said Larry Stewart, the grizzled bailiff guarding the front door. "They get here right at 9, and it's like this until a couple of minutes before 5, about 500 a day."
Out on the sidewalk, Rupli was cursing into his cell phone, trying to get to the bottom of what he believes is Republican chicanery. On the state's ballot, the Republican Party ticket is illustrated with an eagle. Next to the Democratic Party, it's a drawing of a chicken, a rooster, actually, but Rupli wanted to know, "What was the thinking there?"
Monte Harding, 56, of Gerardstown didn't notice the poultry on the Democratic ballot he just cast. "You don't know what's being counted and what's not, so I figured I'd be a little safer voting at the courthouse," he said.
Around the corner, Terry and Libby Cochran stopped by the Republican headquarters to pick up Bush-Cheney lawn signs.
"I purposely asked our son-in-law, who served in Iraq, who we should vote for, and he said Bush," said Libby Cochran, 43, of Bunker Hill.
In a Knight-Ridder Mason-Dixon poll taken Oct. 14-16, 49 percent of West Virginia respondents said they planned to vote for Bush, and 44 percent were for Kerry, with a 4-point margin of error. A full 28 percent of West Virginians said the economy was the most important issue determining their vote. Iraq and "family values" were each cited by 14 percent.