Divided Iowa Up for Grabs in November

President Bush lost this blue-collar corner of the state by 3,056 votes en route to losing Iowa by 4,144 — paper-thin margins that could have cost him the White House.

And it could be just as close Nov. 2, which is why Bush and Democrat John Kerry (search) have made Iowa's seven electoral votes a major focus of their Electoral College (search) strategies. Politically, Iowa is divided in almost every way.

The populous eastern half of the state is split between Republicans and Democrats while the rural western half is heavily conservative and Republican. Voter registration is nearly even among the two major parties and open-minded independents.

One senator is a Republican, the other a Democrat. Four congressmen are Republicans, one a Democrat.

On Wednesday in this Mississippi River town, Bush and Kerry campaigned just blocks from each other and at nearly the same time. Its 98,000 or so residents — nearly balanced among registered Democrats, Republicans and independents — welcomed both candidates with separate but equally enthusiastic rallies.

"It's a symbol that Iowa is in play and it's one of a few states that both sides think they have a chance to win," said former Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm. "I suspect it will be in play right until the election."

Bush hopes to put Iowa in the Republican column by appealing to conservative Democrats, particularly Catholic voters who tend to side with the GOP on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues. Kerry is betting that the state's economy and the war in Iraq will keep the state Democratic.

Kerry has another edge: A newly minted grass-roots organization that helped him to an upset victory in Iowa's caucuses. It is led by two strong statewide Democrats, Sen. Tom Harkin and Gov. Tom Vilsack (search).

Davenport and surrounding Scott County make for a natural intersection for the Bush and Kerry campaigns to collide. The county has 27,907 registered Republicans and 26,437 Democrats. In 2000, after paying a last-minute visit to Davenport, Gore won the county 35,857 votes to 32,801 votes.

Presidential candidates can afford to ignore the state's western edge, a single congressional district with 148,910 registered Republicans and just 89,640 Democrats. Not so the eastern Iowa cities such as Dubuque, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. With plenty of blue-collar workers, they have long been considered Democratic strongholds, yet Republicans have made some gains by exploiting social issues.

"This is where the people are," said Dick Myers, a retired Democratic legislator from Iowa City. "It's always in play."

Iowa shares the divided frustrations of a divided country. While its unemployment rate is relatively low at 4.3 percent, jobs lost in industries such as farm and construction equipment have not been replaced by jobs paying as much.

About 28,300 jobs have been lost in Iowa since Bush took office, when the state unemployment rate was just 2.6 percent.

Jeff Link, a veteran Democratic organizer, ran Al Gore's campaign in the state in 2000, Harkin's campaign in 2002 and is now in charge of America Coming Together — an anti-Bush grass-roots group not formally associated with the Kerry campaign.

"I think we absolutely have the best organization," said Link. "Then truth is it started five years ago and we've just sort of built our capabilities and our system. You can't just sort of create it overnight."

That edge may be only marginal, with voters paying attention early in a state which launched the nominating season in January and has a reputation for political sophistication.

"We seem to be tremendously in play," said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, who said the upper Midwest is likely to settle the election.

Iowa is one of six states settled by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2000. Two of them, Florida and New Hampshire, went to Bush. Iowa and three others — New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin — went to Gore. Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency by a single electoral vote.

"Every one of these states is worth fighting for," Goldford said.