The electoral map unexpectedly -- and perhaps temporarily -- expanded yesterday, with Democrats suddenly playing defense in their traditional stronghold of Hawaii and some party strategists eyeing two other states that Sen. John F. Kerry had all but written off, West Virginia and Arkansas.
Strategists in both parties said they are confident that Hawaii would remain in Democratic hands on Election Day, and most predicted that Arkansas and West Virginia would stay in Republican hands. But the flurry of interest in these states in the campaign's final week underscored not only how close the race between Kerry and President Bush remains but also the combatants' desire to test every opportunity and protect against every contingency.
The candidates' travel schedules and their television advertising dollars remain concentrated on the bigger and more obvious battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania and on some smaller states. But in a year in which the parties and their ideological allies are flush with cash, last-minute forays into unexpected places have become possible.
Hawaii has never been on anyone's targeting map, which is why two recent newspaper polls showing the senator from Massachusetts and Bush tied caught everyone by surprise and triggered the decision at the Democratic National Committee to spend money on TV ads as a precaution. "We're not taking anything for granted," said Ellen Moran, who directs the DNC's independent-expenditure ad campaign.
Two independent liberal groups, the Media Fund and MoveOn.org's political action committee, also bought time on radio or television to help shore up a state that Al Gore won by 19 percentage points.
Former president Bill Clinton, according to party strategists, has implored the Kerry campaign for weeks not to give up on Arkansas, a state Gore narrowly lost, and plans to campaign there Sunday.
In the past two weeks, two polls have shown the race in Arkansas statistically even. The Kerry campaign bought advertising in the state early on but stopped that effort some time ago. It is not clear whether the DNC will spend advertising dollars there, but MoveOn has made a modest TV buy and the Media Fund purchased radio ads.
West Virginia fell off the Kerry list of top-tier targets some weeks ago, after an intensive effort that included multiple trips by the candidate and running mate John Edwards and a substantial advertising buy. But one Kerry adviser said earlier this month that West Virginia looked bleak. "We haven't been able to convince them that we share their values," the official said.
But one top Democrat said polling within the past week showed the race had narrowed to low single digits, prompting a reassessment. The DNC earlier pulled out a portion of its field staff in the state, but the Kerry campaign can count on a strong effort by organized labor, led by the United Steelworkers of America and the United Mine Workers, to turn out their members.
A DNC official said last night that the party probably will be on the air with a television ad by today in West Virginia, and MoveOn has bought TV time. "We're optimistic about West Virginia and want to make sure that we're not prematurely counting anything done before it's done," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the PAC.
He noted that, given how hard it is to buy advertising time in Florida or Ohio now, spending a little money in a state such as West Virginia is attractive.
Bush strategists said earlier they were surprised when Kerry seemed to give up on West Virginia, but one Bush adviser said in an e-mail that regardless of what the Democrats and their allies do in the final week, "they can't win Arkansas and West Virginia."