With the nation still deeply divided politically, both parties are developing strategies for reaching out to the critical group of undecided voters who will decide the 2004 presidential election.

"Independents tend to be a little more populist than partisans. They tend to be a little more anti-establishment, but that feeling can be on the right or left or not even political," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (search).

Because swing voters "don’t have as strong a prior commitment to seeing their side as advantaged, these people in the middle are going to be a bit more sensitive and open-minded to new data," said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin (search).

Independents make up between 15 and 35 percent of the voting electorate, and while like the rest of the nation, they are focused on such core issues as the war in Iraq and the economy, since they are not a unique interest group, they look at and respond to issues differently, Sabato said.

The catch-phrases used for independent voters -- the "NASCAR Dads" and "Soccer Moms" -- may be well and good, said Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the CATO Institute's Center for Representative Government (search), but they don't get at the heart of the independent voters' concerns. Instead, Basham said, this year's key electorate is the "insecure voter" who can be male or female and from any race or religion.

"The party that wins is the party that reassures that insecure voter. The party that can apparently provide security is the one that’s going to get most of those votes," he said.  

"At the moment, it would appear the Republicans have the upper hand," Basham continued, adding that Republicans will be better positioned to appeal to swing voters if the economy continues to improve and another terror attack is avoided.

If those issues stay on the course they are currently headed, Republicans will be able to argue that they can provide national security and a strong economy.

"The Democrats have the harder challenge because they're going to have to say that the economic recovery is uneven; it's incomplete; it has left people behind," Basham said.

"In addition, they can't ignore the national security-slash-terrorism question. They're going to have to continue to poke holes with what Bush has done, saying 'We haven’t captured Usama [bin Laden]. Are we really safer?' And hope to get some kind of traction," he added.

Democrats will also have to find a domestic issue to push, but may have some difficulty because Republicans have tried to appropriate some issues, like health care and education, that traditionally favor Democrats.

On the flip side, Buchanan said Democrats have the advantage of pushing perceived fiscal irresponsibility by Republican lawmakers, with the deficit as evidence of that case. Democrats may also be able to maintain an edge on health care, despite the new Republican-driven legislation providing a prescription drug benefit.

"There's plenty of time for the Democrats to hammer the prescription drug bill and its inadequacies. It might not give the Bush forces as much bounce as they would hope," Buchanan said.

Basham said the question for Democrats is whether they can "find enough single-issue voters on things like abortion, environment, gun control to compensate or overwhelm the Republicans on bigger issues." Wedge issues like those tend to favor Democrats.

"The Republicans have the macro advantages and the Democrats have micro ones," he said.

For Democrats, making sure the messages -- both to swing voters and the political bases -- simultaneously come out right will be the true challenge.

"These two constituencies will need to be addressed with different messages that don't appear to conflict," Buchanan said, calling it a "hazardous" opportunity.

Swing voters are more impatient with harsh partisanship, which they regard as "unpleasant politics," he said.

In addition, Buchanan said swing voters "regard inconsistency in message as a character issue, and the media will try to catch candidates who, for example, give a different message in South Carolina than in New Hampshire," Buchanan said.

The Democratic presidential candidates are "going to spend some of the time to appeal to the moderate center of the country at the same time they're going to be ratcheting up their rhetoric for their base," Basham said.

This strategy could leave the candidates looking very liberal or conservative on some days and moderate on others, giving their campaigns a "schizophrenic" image that could hurt them.