President Bush rode his armored, star-spangled bus through the Democratic stronghold of Minnesota on Thursday as his campaign inaugurated a major push to spend more time and money in opposition territory.
Minnesota has not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1972, making it the state with the longest unbroken string of Democratic victories. But winning the Land of 10,000 Lakes, which Al Gore carried by two percentage points in 2000, has become one of the top goals for the Bush campaign.
Bush aides said they plan to move staff and advertising from several states where Bush won narrowly but is now running strong, including West Virginia and Missouri, into ones he wants to make Democratic nominee John F. Kerry defend, notably Minnesota and Wisconsin -- two states in the upper Midwest where churchgoing is heavy and issues of values play well.
"We're not going to let him raise your taxes -- we're going to win in November," Bush told a crowd at a baseball diamond in Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, at the end of his trip from the Mississippi River, through Twin Cities suburbs to the edge of the prairie.
Focusing on health care for the second time this week, Bush warned: "My opponent wants government to dictate. I want you to decide when it comes to health care." Picking up on an estimate from a report this week by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Bush said Kerry's health care plan would cost "$1.5 trillion -- that's trillion with a 't,' and that's big even for a senator from Massachusetts."
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Bush's comments were "detached from reality" because the senator's plan is not government-run but is based on tax credits to help businesses buy insurance for their workers.
The Bush-Cheney campaign sent its biggest names to Gore states on Thursday. First lady Laura Bush spoke in New Jersey, where a poll last week showed Kerry barely ahead after once holding a double-digit lead. She urged supporters to court "Democrats and independents who appreciate strong and optimistic leadership." Vice President Cheney appeared in New Mexico, which Gore won by 366 votes and is a major worry for the Kerry team.
Bush continued to lampoon Kerry's position on Iraq, drawing laughter as he told a crowd in the Mississippi River quarry town of St. Cloud, which has a large Roman Catholic population, that "the fellow I'm running against has probably had about eight positions on Iraq," citing comments from an interview Kerry gave Wednesday to the Don Imus radio show, carried by MSNBC.
"Let me be clear," Bush said, thumping the lectern with each word. "Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to our troops in the field, the Iraqi people, to our allies, and -- most of all -- to our enemies."
Bush is breaking a months-long pattern and going for a two-week stretch with no trips to the classic swing states of Ohio, Missouri or West Virginia. Instead, he is traveling to the Gore states of Minnesota and Wisconsin for events focusing on health care, education and women's issues.
"While you're out registering people to vote, make sure you don't overlook discerning Democrats -- you know, people like Zell Miller," Bush said in a fancy gym in suburban Blaine, continuing to delight supporters by invoking the Democratic senator from Georgia who crossed party lines with a raucous keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.
A Gallup Poll for USA Today released Thursday night showed Bush with a 13-percentage-point lead. But another poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that the race was tied again because of erosion in Bush's support in the past week after a huge post-convention advantage. The president's aides said they believe they are winning narrowly.
Minnesota and Wisconsin, which Bush lost by 5,709 votes, have been trending Republican for at least eight years and White House strategists believe they can turn them by targeting suburbs, along with rural areas that used to be solidly Democratic, with Bush's promises of a muscular foreign policy, preservation of traditional values and attempts to lower taxes.
So how did Bush become competitive in the only state to vote for native son Walter F. Mondale in 1984, and one of only 10 carried by Michael S. Dukakis in 1988? Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the 2004 election project at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said the state has become more suburban, and the New Deal generation is dying out.
"It no longer looks like Little Sweden, with support for higher taxes and more government services," Jacobs said. He added that another factor is that the state "is like everywhere else" in that national security is eclipsing traditional Democratic issues such as health care.
Two polls of Minnesota released Thursday -- by CNN-USA Today-Gallup and the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- showed Bush tied in the state that Kerry had once led, although the Democrat held a nine-point lead in a poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Strategists from both campaigns said Wisconsin, where a Gallup poll released Tuesday showed a dead heat, is the Gore state Bush is most likely to pick up.
Kerry adviser Tad Devine said his campaign "expects to compete hard in both states, to the end," but acknowledged that Wisconsin -- where Bush plans to travel next week -- is "going to be a tough, tough fight." He said he believes the progressive tradition in both states will wind up holding them for Kerry.
The Bush team's hopes for capturing Gore states are buoyed by evidence that it is attracting more Democrats than Kerry is Republicans. The Pew poll found Bush getting 10 percent of Democrats and Kerry receiving half that level of support among Republicans.