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Pinpointing Battlegrounds Amid Debate Preparations

By Mike Allen and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page A06

CRAWFORD, Tex., Sept. 25 -- President Bush may make an expensive bid to win New Jersey and is likely to increase his spending in Washington state if his leads in swing states hold after the opening presidential debate Thursday night, Republican officials said Saturday.

The candidates withdrew from the campaign trail over the weekend to prepare for the three debates, which will take place over the next two weeks and are seen by both sides as the last chance for a major momentum shift in the race. Bush held a formal practice at his Texas ranch Saturday night with top White House officials, and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) playing the role of Sen. John F. Kerry.

Officials said the pillars of Bush's debate strategy are to focus on spelling out what he believes are inconsistencies and weaknesses in Kerry's record and positions, and to come across, as one confidant put it, as "the steely, calm, post-9/11 Bush, not the combative, competitive, cowboy Texan Bush."

Kerry is to leave Boston on Sunday and go to a Wisconsin resort to begin debate preparations. He will make a public appearance each day to respond to the day's news and maintain his profile in the state, which Al Gore won by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000. Officials said that in addition to refocusing his campaign on foreign policy, the topic of Thursday's debate, Kerry is making a major new effort to reach women, a crucial voting block that has moved toward Bush in many recent polls because of security concerns.

A possible snag in the debate schedule developed Saturday because the Commission on Presidential Debates still had not signed the two campaigns' 32-page agreement. In past campaigns, candidates had not demanded the commission's signature. Commission officials fear their tax-exempt, nonpartisan status could be jeopardized if they sign.

The Bush campaign expects the commission to sign the agreement or a similar letter before the first debate, in Coral Gables, Fla. Kerry communications director Stephanie Cutter said that Bush's campaign "is trying to limit his exposure through this agreement" and that Kerry will debate regardless.

Both campaigns said the battleground map could change significantly based on the first debate, likely to have the largest TV audience of the three. Officials said Bush aides feel that they have locked up Missouri and West Virginia, are confident about Florida and Ohio, and have barely had to fight for Arizona, Arkansas and North Carolina. They said that White House senior adviser Karl Rove and others in Bush's inner circle are laying plans to expand a potential victory well beyond the states he won in 2000, into additional Democratic strongholds.

The campaigns were startled by recent news organization polls showing Bush tied with Kerry in New Jersey, which Bush lost by 16 points in 2000 and which has gone Democratic in the past three elections. Bush aides are debating whether they should reallocate final-days television money to the costly New York City market, which is needed to reach northern New Jersey. Officials said Bush was helped there by the Republican convention in Manhattan. The campaign already advertises in Philadelphia, New Jersey's other major media market.

Bush has advertised from the beginning in Washington state, where he fell five points short last time, and Republicans said they are prepared to move staff and money there if other swing states become secure. Bush officials said he has been gaining among independents in neighboring Oregon.

Kerry campaign officials who asked not to be identified said that the campaign's internal polling shows that the head-to-head race nationally is closer than some of the more recent public polls have indicated and that many states remain competitive.

While Kerry's campaign acknowledges pulling back in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, which are trending for Bush, they say that the ticket has bounced back in West Virginia and that Ohio and Florida remain competitive. One midweek tracking poll showed Kerry up a couple of points in Florida, several campaign aides said.

In addition, the campaign began airing an ad Friday in West Virginia featuring Sen. Robert C. Byrd -- an enduringly popular figure there -- strongly advocating for the Massachusetts senator. Officials believe the ad will help with swing voters by pointing to problems that Democrats say Bush has created for the country.

One source described Florida, Iowa, Ohio, New Mexico and Wisconsin as "ground zero" for Kerry campaign efforts. Colorado, which Bush won by nine points in 2000, has become a battleground, with Bush shifting resources there from Arkansas. Kerry's campaign also added resources in the state and was buoyed by a Rocky Mountain News poll showing the Colorado race statistically even. But another statewide poll showed Bush with a 12-point lead.

The Kerry campaign made a major media buy in 14 states this week for its most recent ad criticizing Bush for what it portrayed as the bleak situation in Iraq. Kerry has been hammering at Bush's perceived strength -- national security -- to prepare for the debate.

A small cadre of advisers will work with Kerry on debate preparations in Spring Green, Wis., Washington lawyer Greg Craig will play the role of Bush.

In preparations for the vice presidential debate on Oct. 5, Vice President Cheney is sparring with Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is practicing with Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who played the same role for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) in 2000.

Romano reported from Boston.

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