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Candidates Hit Key States With Election Still a Tossup

The Kerry campaign is building a cautiously upbeat aura around the candidate, and his staff believes Kerry has hit his stride in both his message and his delivery. For the past week, he has been launching his speech with talk of Iraq and the war on terrorism, pledging to keep America safe, but then he quickly moves to domestic issues. His transition from national security to the economy has become one of his greatest laugh lines before partisan audiences.

"A president has to be able to do more than one thing at the same time," Kerry shouted in Pueblo, as people laughed and cheered.

President Bush delivered his stump speech to supporters at the spring training facility for the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. He blasted Kerry as the most liberal Senator in Congress. (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)

His second laugh line comes when Kerry ridicules Bush for repeatedly saying of his job, during the first debate, that it is "hard work."

"You know, when it comes to jobs, and health care and all these other things in that debate, I kept hearing the president say -- he would lean over the podium and he'd kind of look at you real nice, like -- then he said, 'It's hard work, it's hard work, it's hard work,' " Kerry said. "Well, Mr. President, I'm ready to relieve you of the hard work," he said, as the crowd roared.

Kerry was courting Hispanics in both states. Flanked in Colorado by Senate candidate Ken Salazar and in New Mexico by Gov. Bill Richardson -- both Hispanic -- Kerry urged people to vote, at one point speaking in Spanish.

The other chopper rallies were in Lakeland and Melbourne. Bush's finale was a rally for 25,000 or more at Alltel Stadium, home of the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars and site of next February's Super Bowl. Bush spoke from a lectern on the 50-yard line. He arrived amid rock-concert-style smoke and departed to fireworks.

The Republican official said polling for Bush showed him in a weaker position than some published polls have indicated, both nationally and in battlegrounds. In many of the key states, the official said, Bush is below 50 percent, and he is ahead or behind within the margin of sampling error -- a statistical tie.

"There's just no place where they're polling outside the margin of error so they can say, 'We have this state,' " the official said. "And they know that an incumbent needs to be outside the margin of error."

Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, said Bush will win a solid enough victory that the result will be clear sometime after midnight, although he made no prediction about the margin of victory or the number of states Bush would carry.

"It's going to be a close election, but we have a persistent lead" in national polls, said Rove, who was wearing a "Pennsylvania Victory" cap as he traveled with Bush on Saturday.

Bush officials said they believe they will benefit from many intangibles in Florida, including a large military population, one of the nation's stronger state economies, a vast grass-roots organization and the popularity of the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Rove said Bush has begun advertising more heavily in Michigan, a state that once appeared out of reach for Bush, and the White House announced that Bush will stay overnight there in the coming week.

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), campaigned in Florida and seized on a Fortune magazine report that the Social Security Administration is considering raising the retirement age for full benefits from 65 to 72. Edwards said in Orlando that Bush "says he wants to protect Social Security, but he winks and he nods, and the leaks tell us something different."

Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens said Bush "is against raising the retirement age, increasing taxes or decreasing benefits."

Romano is traveling with Kerry. Staff writer John Wagner, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.

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