CLEVELAND -- Bob Paduchik, who runs President Bush's reelection campaign in Ohio, likes to measure his progress with numbers. Here's one he cited with satisfaction: 175,000.
That was the number of new and presumably Republican voters his network of field organizers and volunteer activists had helped register, enabling them to cast ballots in the presidential election, as of late last month.
Or so he claimed.
J.B. Poersch, Paduchik's counterpart on John F. Kerry's campaign, paused when the 175,000 figure was recited to him. "That's a lot of voters," he noted coolly. Then his face soured, and he shook his head. "Uh-uh," he said emphatically, dismissing the GOP assertion as fantasy. "That's not the case."
Or maybe it is the case. This is the season of bluster in Ohio, the most battled over of battleground states, where every campaign is making boasts about its organizational prowess, and worrying anxiously about whether the boasts of opponents can be believed. Some liberal groups not affiliated with the Kerry campaign are asserting that they have registered 300,000 or even more voters, in a field organization campaign of unprecedented scope and intensity.
No matter the true figure, every poll that comes out in Ohio between now and Nov. 2 should include an asterisk -- or perhaps even a question mark. On all sides, this year's field operations are devoted to overturning the assumptions of pollsters -- about who will vote, and how many -- to the advantage of either Bush or Kerry, in ways that could produce an Election Day surprise.
For now, the Ohio ground game is kicking up plenty of dust, but the reality behind the fervent and sometimes contradictory boasts of who is winning is hard to discern. Not all of the claimed registrants are reflected in the latest official releases from the secretary of state's office, where information can lag coming in from 88 counties. Registration ends Monday, and no effort has been made yet to determine how many of the applications are duplicates of people already registered. Election officials, and even activists with the groups, acknowledge that a significant fraction of the 300,000 Democratic applications do not reflect new voters, much less represent a guarantee that these people will get to the polls.
In the meantime, registration efforts are generating controversy, including investigations over illegal registration of dead people and a Democratic lawsuit and petition drive accusing Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) of narrowly interpreting rules in a bid to suppress Democratic votes.
For all the confusion, it is clear that, cumulatively, the efforts of the Bush and Kerry campaigns combined with the activities of independent groups mark this year as by far the most extensive ground battle ever in Ohio politics. In a state where voters know they are special -- thanks to 20 electoral votes and a history of backing every presidential winner since 1964 -- this year there is more of everything: volunteers enlisted, doors knocked upon, telephones rung, yard signs planted.
Amid the frenzy, a question looms: What is all this activity really good for?
The rarely spoken secret, even among the leaders of the Ohio ground game, is that no one is really sure.
"A really good ground game will get three to four percentage points," said Paduchik, a 38-year-old veteran of Ohio GOP politics. "We've never had a grass-roots organization like this in the state of Ohio," he noted, a novelty that means no one can say, "What's going to be real on Election Day?"
One person who insists his efforts will prove real -- and possibly decisive -- is Steve Bouchard, who is organizing the state for America Coming Together (ACT). Well funded from labor unions and deep-pocketed liberal benefactors, ACT is one of the new independent groups that seems especially large in Ohio and other swing states. ACT has saturated the state with legions of paid activists, an effort that by law must be uncoordinated with Kerry but that is aimed at getting him elected.
During a visit to ACT's local office here, near the campus of Case Western Reserve University and not far from the Cleveland Clinic hospital, Bouchard said, "If we are neck-and-neck on November 1st, then we are going to win on November 2nd."