OLYMPIA, Wash. – Democrat John Kerry (search), back in Washington state to court undecided swing voters in a battleground state, is leading in the polls here but his campaign fully expects President Bush to contest the region until the bitter end.
"They will try to take us by surprise" with an under-the-radar ground game of registering and motivating conservatives and by negative campaigning, said Sam Rodriguez, Kerry's state director.
The Kerry camp is hitting back with an aggressive campaign of its own, combining old-fashioned shoe-leather canvassing with sophisticated computer-assisted targeting of potential Kerry voters, the campaign said.
"We've been registering voters since April," Rodriguez said.
Kerry has solidified his Democratic base and is now reaching out to undecided voters and Republicans and independents, Rodriguez said.
The Massachusetts senator, making his first visit to the state since the Democratic National Convention (search), spoke to a town hall forum for working families in Everett on Friday before a million-dollar fund-raiser in Seattle.
He was courting Baby Boomers for a planned public rally on a sprawling parking lot at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday, with Washington's own Wailers invited to belt out the state rock song, "Louie Louie," and Garrison Keillor and Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark (search) on stage.
Republicans planned a waffle feed nearby on Saturday, to highlight what they see as Kerry's flip-flops and waffling on issues.
Kerry's itinerary targeted the vote-rich — and contribution-rich — Puget Sound area, with events in all three of the region's largest counties, King, Pierce and Snohomish.
Kerry's sold-out fund-raising event for the Democratic National Committee and other party campaign efforts was expected to top $1 million in gifts. He raised $2.2 million in Seattle in May.
Here and in California, Kerry was offering himself as the better choice for America's middle class. His campaign said the election is "a fundamental choice of four more years of an administration that puts narrow interests ahead of middle-class families, or the Kerry-Edwards plan that strengthens and expands the middle class."
Rodriguez said the campaign believes the state party's ideological divisions have been set aside, with Democrats united by a common goal of ousting Bush.
"Now we're building on that by reaching out to moderate Republicans who are concerned about the war, jobs and choice (on abortion)," he said.
For weeks now, polls have showed the Kerry-Edwards ticket with a lead for Washington's 11 electoral votes. The state hasn't voted Republican for the White House since Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign 20 years ago. George W. Bush lost the state by 5.6 percentage points in 2000.
But the Bush-Cheney campaign and state and national Republicans continue to place Washington on their target list, believing they can close the gap by Election Day.
"We're running the most aggressive, extensive, volunteer-based presidential campaign in state history," said Tracey Schmitt, a Bush campaign spokeswoman. "We may be outspent but we will not be outworked."
She conceded that most polls show Kerry leading, but called those "just snapshots in time," taken after the Democratic convention, but before the GOP gathering in New York.
"The Kerry-Edwards ticket is anti-trade and antigrowth, and that will not be successful in a state that understands the importance of both," she said.
Rodriguez said the Kerry camp does not foresee Bush pulling out of the state, particularly with hotly contested races for the Senate, governor and U.S. House sharing the same ballot.
Independent pollster Stuart Elway said Kerry holds an edge and barring surprise developments, should carry the state.
"Kerry has pretty consistently been six to eight points ahead," Elway said. "The economy still has people nervous here and the cultural issues that seem to play well for the Republicans elsewhere don't play that well here."
A new poll by Zogby and Wall Street Journal Online put Kerry at 53.1 percent, Bush at 44.7 percent and Ralph Nader at less than 1 percent. The poll sampled the opinions of 1,038 voters between Aug. 16-21 and carried a margin of error of 3 percent.
A poll by Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based company with GOP clients, had Kerry at 49 percent, Bush at 43 percent and Nader at 2 percent. The poll was conducted Aug. 21-23 and has a margin of error of 3 percent.
David Johnson, CEO of the company, said Kerry has lost ground in his poll.
"Part of this can be credited to the bounce from the Democratic Convention dissipating, but some of it can also be credited to the Swift boat controversy," he said.
"Uncertainty rules the day," he added. "People in Washington and everywhere are not sure if things are getting better or worse."