This year's presidential race has given fresh meaning to the old adage that all politics is local.
Nationally, the election is about Iraq, the economy and terrorism. But in most of the 15 to 20 states where the election's outcome will be determined, local issues that are obscure to the rest of the country could prove decisive.
Consider both campaigns' activities in the past few weeks:
In Albuquerque on Thursday, Bush played forest ranger when he said: "Our Healthy Forests Restoration Act is good law for New Mexico. . . . The Cibola National Forest will benefit from this important legislation."
Earlier, in Oregon, Bush sounded like a public works commissioner when he said he was asking for $15 million to deepen 104 miles of Oregon's Columbia River by three feet. "We're committed to keeping the Columbia River open for navigation and trade," he said.
Around that time, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry was in Las Vegas, declaring his determination to keep a Nevada mountain from becoming a radioactive storage site. "When John Kerry is president, there's going to be no nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, period," the Massachusetts senator said.
And Kerry's number two, John Edwards, was busy telling reporters that he was opposed to drilling for oil in part of New Mexico. "I'm against drilling on Otero Mesa," he said.
Democrats and Republicans each insist that local issues on balance favor their candidate.
"Bush's domestic policies have had their most devastating effects at the state and local levels," said Jim Jordan, the former Kerry campaign manager who works for an anti-Bush group. "States are broke, schools are closing, pollution is spreading, and these local budgets and issues and controversies are serving to focus voters' anger at this administration."
Jennifer Millerwise, who coordinates regional media operations for the Bush campaign, said: "John Kerry's plans for local communities are as out of touch as his national record. . . . John Kerry opposed the Healthy Forests Act, a plan written by Westerners to protect their forests. Wisconsin dairy farmers can't trust him after his consistent support of a plan to put them at a competitive disadvantage, and his hostility towards coal mining would kill West Virginia jobs."
The Bush campaign's strongest local issue may be in Michigan, where Kerry's preference for higher fuel economy standards is deeply unpopular with the state's large automotive industry. (The issue also works against Kerry, to a lesser extent, in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.) Republicans point to Kerry's hope of raising the standard to 36 miles per gallon, a 50 percent increase, by 2015 -- a change the industry says would cost many Michigan jobs.
In Michigan, the Bush campaign is also trying to exploit a comment by Kerry that the issue of diverting Great Lakes water in the state for municipal use elsewhere would require a "delicate balancing act." Bush unequivocally opposes the diversions, which reduce the water level in lakes bordering Michigan and other swing states: Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"My position is clear," Bush said recently in Traverse City, Mich. "We're never going to allow diversion of Great Lakes water."
Democrats, in turn, probably have their strongest local issue in Nevada, where opposition to burying nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain could cause the otherwise Republican state to go to Kerry. The Democratic nominee vigorously opposes using Yucca for the radioactive waste, and Bush has been open to such use. "If the presidential race for Nevada's five electoral votes comes down to Yucca Mountain, which it should, Sen. John Kerry already has won the race," columnist Jeff German wrote in the Las Vegas Sun on Aug. 13.
The Kerry campaign thinks it has a similar advantage on an environmental issue in New Mexico. There, the administration's Bureau of Land Management has plans to open the Otero Mesa to oil and gas drilling. The state's popular governor, Democrat Bill Richardson, has elevated the matter by issuing an executive order making drilling on Otero more difficult.
The Bush campaign expects to have the upper hand in other environmental disputes on the West Coast. The Bush campaign charges that Kerry "chose environmental extremism" over Oregon farmers when he supported a cut in water allocations to farmers during a drought to help the suckerfish and coho salmon population. Oregon's Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden opposed Kerry on the issue.
Similarly, the Republicans think Kerry's opposition to Bush's "healthy forests" legislation could hurt the Democrat in logging states such as Washington and Oregon. Kerry said the legislation "takes a chain saw to public forests." The Bush campaign notes that Wyden and Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state Democrat, voted for Bush's legislation.
In Florida, a statewide ballot initiative on the minimum wage could help Kerry by bringing more Democrats to the polls. The initiative calls for a constitutional amendment creating a state minimum wage of $6.15, with future increases indexed to inflation. The federal minimum wage is $5.15, and Bush has generally opposed increases -- putting him at odds with a large majority of Americans.
In Ohio, Democrats believe they have found in the Timken Co. a local symbol for national job losses under Bush. The ball bearings company is shutting down some Ohio facilities and cutting about 1,300 jobs -- a year after Bush visited the company to use it as a showcase for his tax cuts. Republicans have tried to counter the Timken case by pointing to a Kerry quotation that "I don't want Toyota and Honda being the sellers" of hybrid cars; Honda employs about 16,000 workers in Ohio.
In steel country, particularly Pennsylvania but also Ohio, West Virginia and the iron-ore mining area of Minnesota, the Kerry campaign is working to profit from the anger of steelworkers over Bush's lifting of protections against foreign steel. After imposing tariffs on many foreign steel products, the administration decided against renewing them. Republican officials in steel states, such as Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Robert W. Ney (Ohio), registered their dismay at Bush's move.
By contrast, the Bush campaign believes it can gain votes in West Virginia by its support for the coal industry. The Republicans say Kerry's support for the Kyoto accord on global warming and his opposition to mountaintop mining would decimate the state's coal industry. Kerry partisans counter that miners oppose Bush because of lax enforcement of mine safety.
With Wisconsin in play this year, the presidential campaign has inevitably included an appeal to cheeseheads. The Bush campaign reminds Wisconsin voters that the Massachusetts senator's support for the Northeast Dairy Compact, which protects New England dairy farmers, hurts the Wisconsin dairy trade. Not to be outdone, the Democrats appealed to the fishermen of Maine by telling them that Bush's environmental policies are making Maine seafood inedible because of pollution from mercury.