Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush began a final two-day blitz through the most competitive battlegrounds Sunday, with Kerry wooing his base at a black church, preaching a gospel of economic hope, and the president crisscrossing Florida, questioning his challenger's credentials to keep the nation safe from terrorists.
Two days before the election, the candidates and their running mates were in a frenetic race, circling each other and pressing whatever advantage they have to make closing arguments.
New polls continued to paint a portrait of an extraordinarily close race and an electorate divided by the same fissures that have shaped the political landscape since the disputed election of 2000. Officials in both campaigns said they detected no significant trend in either direction since the release of a videotaped message by Osama bin Laden on Friday afternoon.
The latest Washington Post tracking poll showed Bush and Kerry each with 48 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 1 percent. Four other national polls released Sunday showed Bush leading Kerry by 1 to 3 percentage points -- in all cases within the margin of error.
State polls offered few clues to the outcome, with Ohio and Florida still the most significant and hotly contested states. Strategists on both sides expressed optimism Sunday about their candidate's chances of winning Florida and said Ohio remains too close to call.
Kerry, in Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida, looked to make his case in the homestretch with domestic issues. Polls show that voters see issues such as the economy and health care as the Democrat's strength.
Kerry never mentioned his opponent by name in his remarks from the pulpit at Shiloh Baptist Church here, but the references were unmistakable, as he quoted scriptures and recited "Amazing Grace." He spoke of diminished after-school care, expensive health care and job losses.
"There is a standard by which we have to live," Kerry said. "Coming to church on Sundays and talking about faith and professing faith isn't the whole deal. . . . I hear politicians talk about values, but I don't see them."
Bush and Vice President Cheney also moved to secure their base and stuck to their perceived strength, national security. Speaking to a rally filled with Cuban Americans in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood, Bush said Kerry "entered the flip-flop hall of fame" for his assertion that he had voted for, then against, an $87 billion package to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If you believe America should fight the war on terror with all her might and lead with unwavering confidence, I ask you, come stand by me," Bush said to cries of "Viva Bush."
Bush also made a direct appeal to Cuban Americans, saying, "We will not rest. We will keep the pressure on, until the Cuban people enjoy the same freedoms in Havana they received here in America."
Although Bush's remarks continue to be aimed at the concerns of his most fervent supporters, his remarks Sunday included an extra bit of outreach. "If you are a Democrat who believes your great party has turned too far left in this year, I ask you, come stand with me," he said. "If you are a minority citizen and you believe in free enterprise and good schools and the enduring values of family and faith, if you're tired of your vote being taken for granted, I ask you, come stand with me."
Bush has courted churchgoers vigorously. Before the rally, he attended Mass at Church of the Epiphany, the home church of his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The pastor, Monsignor Jude O'Doherty, all but endorsed Bush in remarks to the congregation. "Your belief in prayer and dependence on God has to be an example for all of us," O'Doherty said. "As president, your support for the many things of serious concern to us as Catholics is deeply appreciated, among them being your wholehearted support for human life from conception to natural death."
Cheney accused Kerry of turning his back on U.S. troops because of political ambition. Kerry "is not a steadfast leader. Our president is," Cheney told several hundred supporters at an airplane hangar in Toledo. He later referred to Kerry as "a wannabe commander in chief."
Cheney was the only one of the four candidates Sunday to bring up the tape of bin Laden. At a gathering of activists at GOP headquarters in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Cheney slammed Kerry's staff for telling reporters about results of a poll question about the tape.
"John Kerry's first response was to conduct a poll to find out what he should say about this tape of Osama bin Laden," Cheney said. "He didn't know what to say before he checked polls, he had to stick his finger in the air. . . . George Bush doesn't need a poll to say what he believes, especially about Osama bin Laden." Cheney added that bin Laden is "obviously trying to have an impact on our elections . . . trying to frighten Americans."
Cheney was referring to a question in a poll taken by Democracy Corps, a Democratic group, in which voters said by more than 10 points that the reemergence of bin Laden made them "think that George Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted resources to Iraq."
Kerry, however, made his comments about the bin Laden tape Friday afternoon. The poll was taken Friday night and Saturday.
More than 10,000 Kerry supporters showed up to greet the Massachusetts senator at a festive rally in Manchester, N.H., where Boston's new heroes, John Henry and Tom Werner, owners of World Series-winning Red Sox, introduced Kerry. On Thursday, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling endorsed Bush on a morning television show.
At Shiloh Baptist Church in Dayton, Kerry was greeted warmly by about 1,000 members of the congregation. The minister did his best to help Kerry excite the worshipers, mistakenly calling him Sen. Kennedy four times. The Rev. Selwyn Bachus also drew a parallel to Halloween.
"Certainly over these past few years we've experienced some nightmares here in the state of Ohio," he said. "We lost some 200,000 jobs, our seniors having to go to Canada to get prescription drugs . . . our young people's blood flowing in the streets . . . in this city and cities all across the country. It's been a nightmare, but we have the chance to help Senator Kerry bring the nightmare to an end."
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, sought to drive up Democratic turnout Sunday during stops in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. He, too, started the day in an African American church, in Jacksonville, Fla., where he said his ticket is more in touch with everyday Americans. "They don't hear the voices of the people we grew up with," Edwards told a congregation of about 200 at Greater Grant AME Church. "John Kerry and I hear your voice. We're going to fight for you every day."
Later, Edwards, joined by former senator John Glenn, knocked on a half-dozen doors in a neighborhood in northeastern Columbus, Ohio, that is part of a ward that Bush won in 2000 by 12 votes. "You know, this is not all that complicated," Edwards said beforehand in a pep talk to volunteers working the neighborhood. "The bigger the voter turnout, the more likely that John Kerry will be president of the United States."
Senior Kerry adviser Mike McCurry told reporters Sunday that in the next 48 hours Kerry will focus less on national security and more on his domestic agenda for middle-income Americans, and the need for change. "We are confident; we are going to bring this home," McCurry said.
The candidates' schedules reflect their priorities, aides said. Kerry later held events in Ohio and Iowa, two states where the outcome is far from certain. While in Ohio, he made himself available for telephone interviews with reporters in Hawaii, a state once thought to be safely in the Democratic column that has become competitive enough to prompt a visit by Cheney.
Bush spent most of Sunday in Florida, appearing at three rallies before flying to Ohio for the night. He gave an interview in Florida to NBC's Tom Brokaw and predicted: "Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin -- these are all states I did not win last time that I believe I'm going to carry this time."
Allen is traveling with Bush. Staff writers John Wagner, traveling with Edwards, and Lyndsey Layton, traveling with Cheney, contributed to this report.