The famously idiosyncratic voters of Robert La Follette's Wisconsin and Hubert H. Humphrey's Minnesota are offering President Bush the rarest of opportunities in this election: a chance to win where he lost four years ago.
Recent polls and interviews with voters and strategists from both parties suggest Bush's twin strategies of painting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as a waffler and of rousing conservatives by opposing gay marriage are proving more effective in these two states than many other battlegrounds, especially those Al Gore won in 2000.
At the same time, Kerry's plan of attack -- exploiting job loss and a weak economy -- is complicated by low unemployment numbers in Minnesota and even more so by talk of a full-blown recovery in Wisconsin, strategists say. The Aug. 20 headline from the Badger State's largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, captured the mood: "State jobless rate drops below 5%; Experts see hope in 48,800 positions added in past year."
Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst, said, "It's hard to put your finger on why Bush is doing better in these western Great Lakes states," but he surmised it is a combination of a more gentle economic downturn than elsewhere and a larger number of rural voters receptive to the president's views on guns, God and gays. A new Los Angeles Times poll seemed to support this theory. The poll found Bush gaining ground nationally with rural voters, ubiquitous in the upper Midwest, and pulling ahead in Wisconsin, 48 percent to 44 percent.
To understand the importance of these trends, consider the electoral map and the latest economic developments. Although analysts often talk about national polls, what really matters is what is happening in the 18 or so states where neither Bush nor Kerry is a lock to win.
In several of the states that hold the biggest chunk of up-for-grabs electoral votes, Bush is suffering politically from lackluster economies that are not producing many new good-paying jobs. These include Ohio, a state every GOP president has won, and Pennsylvania, a state some Republicans are privately starting to write off because it is trending Democratic. Ohio's unemployment rate stands at 5.9 percent; Pennsylvania's is 5.3 percent. Florida is looking as tight as it did in 2000. Many political analysts say whoever wins two of these three states will win the presidency.
Cook, however, said it would be possible for Bush to pull off a "back-door victory" if he loses two of the three, but only if he claims the combined 21 electoral votes of Wisconsin and Minnesota, matching Ohio's total.
This explains why Bush and Kerry are making Wisconsin and Minnesota a focus of their election strategies. Kerry hit Green Bay, 50 miles north of here, and then the Twin Cities last week, days after the president's bus rolled through the rural reaches of both states. Major media markets in both states are flooded with political ads. According to Cook's research of where the candidates and their allies are spending the most money, Wisconsin ranks sixth ($12.2 million), Minnesota, seventh ($11.4 million). Bush has run more ads in the Green Bay media market, which feeds Oshkosh, than in all but four other markets, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The debate over Kerry's war record has also played out on Wisconsin's airwaves, and the candidate defended himself in person in both states last week.
This city, most famous for the OshKosh B'Gosh line of clothing, offers a microcosm of the dynamics shaping the fight for the western Great Lakes.
Oshkosh is quintessential Midwest, a place where a good factory job at Leach Co., on the north side, or Oshkosh Truck Corp. across town can afford a family a good middle-class living, a nice house, a pickup in the driveway, and dinner and drinks at the Roxy on weekends.
There is a mix of old industrial jobs at factories, technical positions at the hospitals and reliable work at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. Voters tend to be economically moderate but culturally more conservative. Many, if not most, hunt in the northern woods a short drive away or fish in the two large freshwater lakes hugging the city or on the Fox River, which cuts through downtown. They go to Sunday services at Catholic and Lutheran churches in higher percentages than in many other cities and, generally speaking, are dead set against gay marriage.
Most important to the two campaigns, Oshkosh's 63,000 residents are politically split. In the last election, Gore beat Bush here by fewer than 100 votes out of about 30,000 cast. Based on the Kerry campaign's view of this election, this should be fertile ground for Democratic gains. Voters here have felt the singe of job loss -- the unemployment rate is more than one percentage point higher than when Bush took office -- and are about to experience the burn of outsourcing. Leach, a family-owned manufacturer of dump trucks, is planning to move nearly 200 jobs to Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada.
Kerry condemns outsourcing in an ad on local TV that is likely to resonate with many voters, even though most of the jobs lost so far have landed in places such as Indiana, not India. Dang Thao, a laborer who will vote for the first time in this election, said he is backing Kerry because "I think he will change [the jobs picture] a little bit for the better."
At the same time, Mark Harris, the mayor and a Kerry supporter, said the city is experiencing signs of an economic recovery. Over the past eight months, jobs have opened up at smaller manufacturing plants on the south side of town and at Oshkosh Truck, which offers some of the best-paying factory positions in the area.
"We have just gone through a recession, and we are coming out of it," said Republican Rep. Gregg Underheim, who represents Oshkosh in the state assembly. "If you are educated or if you have skills . . . you have some optimism. If you have less than a high school degree and if you have not acquired a lot of skills over the course of your working life, this is a difficult economy." The latter group often does not vote in large percentages.
A few days after visiting with his constituents door to door, Underheim said the same-sex marriage issue is stirring many voters. He recently voted against a state ban on same-sex marriages, so he knows firsthand the hostilities Kerry faces in these parts. Donna Burgett, an undecided voter, said this issue alone could tip her vote to Bush. "Marriage should be between one man, one woman, not two women or two men," she said.
Tony Leitz, a Democrat who owns a cab company in nearby Ripon, the "birthplace" of the Republican Party, was sitting in Starbucks reading a paperback copy of the Sept. 11 commission's report and lamenting how Republicans in the area are loyal to Bush. "Whatever it is, they are going to stick with George."
The story is the same throughout much of Wisconsin, a state Gore won by less than 1 percent, or 5,708 votes, and where a new poll shows Bush with a slight lead this time.
In Minnesota, the dynamics are similar, but larger and more lasting forces might be at work. Bush is running even with Kerry in a state he lost by 2 percent, according to three recent polls. The state renowned for producing a long line of liberal legends -- Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Orville Freeman and Walter F. Mondale, to name a few -- might not seem like Bush country. Richard M. Nixon was the last Republican to win the presidential race -- in 1972.
But the state's politics have been radically altered over the past 20 years by the demise of the once all-powerful Democratic Farm Labor Party. This transformation was evident, some say complete, in the 2002 elections, when Norm Coleman, a former Democrat, was elected to the Senate as a Republican, and the GOP captured the governorship and expanded its majority in the state legislature. This year, Randy Kelly, the Democratic mayor of liberal St. Paul, shocked the state when he endorsed Bush.
David Lebedoff, a moderate Democrat from Minneapolis and author of a new book on how the demise of majority-rule governing is destroying politics, said what people outside of the state do not understand is how effective Bush's strategy has been. "The wishy-washy thing" is working, he said. "I don't think people not living in battleground states understand the saturation here."
At a town hall meeting in Anoka, a swing town just outside the Twin Cities, Kerry was asked: Are you a liar and a waffler?
The Democratic nominee said no on both counts but conceded that Bush has been successful in planting that seed of doubt for many voters. "It's the standard Republican playbook," he said. "They just say it. And if you spend enough money and say it enough," voters will react, Kerry told the crowd.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.