Democrats have carried Iowa each of the past four presidential elections, a victory string matched by just eight other states and the District of Columbia. But after Al Gore's narrow escape here in 2000, the Hawkeye state is anything but safe for John F. Kerry this year.

Gore defeated George W. Bush by 4,144 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, and partisans here believe Iowa may be heading for a similarly close finish on Nov. 2. Between overlapping visits by Bush, Kerry, their running mates and surrogates and extensive organizational activity underway, Iowans have rarely seen a campaign with such intensity or unpredictability.

Iowa is as divided politically as is the nation as a whole. Democrats control the governor's office and all but one of the executive offices, but the GOP controls the legislature. Republicans have a 4 to 1 edge in the congressional delegation, while Iowans have reelected Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D).

"What is it when you mix red and blue?" asked Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). "You get purple. That's what we are, a purple state. A state that can enthusiastically elect and reelect Chuck Grassley and that can enthusiastically elect and reelect Tom Harkin. We're very, very, very split."

Together with Minnesota and Wisconsin, Iowa makes up part of a trio of upper midwestern states where Democratic strength has been weakened in the past four years and where the Bush campaign sees the chance to defeat Kerry and to offset a potential loss in Ohio or Florida.

The Bush team put Iowa and its seven electoral votes on its 2004 target list immediately after the 2000 election, not only because of Bush's strong showing in many of the rural counties, but also because Iowa was one of 13 states where he exceeded his father's percentage from the 1988 election. To the Bush team, that said Iowa had become more hospitable political ground, despite its string of Democratic wins.

Iowans take their civic responsibilities seriously. According to Secretary of State Chet Culver (D), about 95 percent of all eligible voters are registered, and both campaigns expect a record turnout. Thanks to the long and competitive battle in the caucuses last winter, Democratic registration has surged by 50,000 since January, putting Democrats nearly at parity with Republicans. "We only have roughly 100,000 people left in the whole state out of an eligible pool of 2.2 million," Culver said of unregistered voters. "It's unbelievable."

Iowa launched Kerry toward the Democratic nomination, when the Massachusetts senator resuscitated his campaign with a late surge that demolished the candidacy of former Vermont governor Howard Dean and put Kerry in command of the race. But he struggled for much of the summer and early fall. "The negative [attacks by Bush] worked here," said Jerry Crawford, who heads Kerry's campaign in Iowa. "And we did a lousy job of showcasing Kerry and his message."

Until the presidential debates began, Bush held a narrow lead over Kerry in Iowa, according to polls for both campaigns. The first debate gave Democrats an infusion of energy, and private polling by the Democrats shows some movement in Kerry's direction, although not as much as in some other states. For Kerry, Iowa remains a troublesome battleground.

The Iraq war, terrorism and the economy are the principal issues here, as elsewhere. The farm economy is booming and the unemployment rate is well below the national average -- although it has risen slightly in the past few months. Layoffs and outsourcing still cause anxiety for many Iowa workers.

When Bush campaigned in Des Moines last Monday, he touted a farm economy "that's really strong" and said his tax cuts have put more money in the pockets of Iowa families. The next morning at a town hall meeting in rural Tipton, Kerry noted that the state has lost 27,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office and that 76,000 Iowans have lost their health care coverage. "He's not in touch with the lives of average Americans," Kerry said.

Antiwar sentiment fueled Dean's initial rise in Iowa, and Kerry advisers, citing Iowa's internationalist leanings, argue that Bush's unilateralist war policies, which have alienated many countries, have turned off voters in the state. Bush advisers see Iraq and terrorism as among the president's greatest assets.

The race here is so evenly balanced that both sides believe the outcome will be decided by an old-fashioned ground war. Kerry's team, aided by the state party, has put a huge effort into banking votes before Nov. 2 through Iowa's early voting program, which began on Sept. 23.

As of the middle of last week, about 270,000 Iowans had requested absentee ballots, Culver said. State Democratic Party officials say Democrats hold a 2 to 1 edge in those requests and an even larger advantage among those who have returned ballots.

Republicans argue that Democrats are just banking votes from Democrats who otherwise would show up at the polls, and that they have adopted a different tactic in the ground war, which is to limit their efforts on absentee ballots to GOP voters who are not likely to vote on Election Day.

"They are going to exceed us in pretty good numbers on the absentees," said state Senate President Jeff Lamberti (R). "We are taking another strategy and one we believe in. But you do see those numbers, and it does give you some concern about who they are turning out." Vilsack said the Democratic Party's canvassing suggests that as many as 40,000 Democratic absentee voters would not otherwise have voted were it not for the early voting option.

Although Democrats have had the better ground operation, Republicans believe they have resources to match, including 20,000 volunteers that the Bush campaign has recruited to knock on doors and turn out the vote on Election Day. "Without a doubt, this is the best organized campaign I have seen in Iowa," said David Roederer, who was chief of staff to former governor Terry E. Branstad (R) and a Bush campaign chairman.

Outside groups could play a decisive role in Iowa. On the Democratic side, the state office of America Coming Together has put together its own voter identification and turnout operation, aimed at Democrats and independents who have voted once or not at all in the past three statewide elections, a pool that ACT organizers estimated at 300,000 voters. "If we can get somebody who hasn't voted in the last three elections to participate, that will make a big difference," said Jeff Link, Iowa chairman for ACT.

Bush is counting on strong support in rural and suburban areas to overcome Kerry's advantage in cities. Four years ago, Gore came out of the Des Moines area (Polk County and seven surrounding counties) with a margin of 7,000 votes out of 300,000 cast. Bush wiped that out and then some in rural Sioux County, which he carried by 10,000 votes out of 14,000 cast.

Bush advisers count on the passionate support he enjoys among Republicans to turn out a big vote, and his hopes for victory may rest in part on Christian conservatives, who have been a powerful force in Iowa Republican politics since Pat Robertson surprised Bush's father to win the GOP caucuses in 1988.

Bush supporters are organizing through churches in the state, and the Christian Coalition of Iowa and the Iowa Right to Life Committee are working to build a sizable vote on Nov. 2. Kim Lehmann, executive director of the committee, said there is greater enthusiasm for Bush this year than in 2000. "We're working for a president who has done something and will continue to do something for pro-life," she said.

Vilsack, who has been pressing the Kerry campaign for more resources and candidate time, was assured recently by a top campaign official that the state will get whatever is necessary to win. Still, it is likely Iowa voters will keep the candidates on edge until the very end. Vilsack said, "This is a state that decides later, where momentum is important and timing is everything."

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush greet supporters at a rally in Waterloo, Iowa. A close finish between Bush and John F. Kerry is expected on Nov. 2 in this battleground state.