LaCROSSE, Wis. – In 2000, political pundits summed up the race in three words: Florida, Florida, Florida. Here's three words to consider this fall: Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.
The trio of upper Mississippi River states narrowly backed Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and are, if anything, slightly more Republican four years later, raising the possibility that Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) could lose one or two of them. President Bush (search) is targeting their combined 27 electoral votes — the same total as Florida, where a bitterly contested recount settled the last election.
"They are states we lost last time, but if we can carry one or more of them, it puts Kerry's ability to win the Electoral College (search) in serious jeopardy," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
Interviews throughout the upper Mississippi region — from a diner in Austin, Minn., to a farmer's market in Dubuque, Iowa, to a mayor's office in a Wisconsin river town — revealed a mix of emotions and an anxious mood among voters.
They are worried about the economy, though not as much as Rust Belt (search) voters to the East, and the war in Iraq (search) is a constant source of concern — even anger. But more people approve of the president's performance than disapprove, polls show, and there is significant ambivalence toward Kerry.
"I think he's the man for the job because I know Bush is not," Dionne Klauer said while pushing her 16-month-old daughter through the farmer's market in Dubuque. Her husband served in Iraq, a war she opposes, but she's not quite sold on Kerry.
"I don't know what he would have done differently" in Iraq, she said.
Because of population shifts since 2000 that favor Republicans, Kerry could win every state taken by Gore and be 10 votes short of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Gore lost to Bush by five electoral votes, 271-266.
Kerry is targeting several Bush states, especially Florida and Ohio. He can't afford to lose Gore's ground anywhere — much less in the upper Mississippi, where Democrats are supposed to run as strong as the river.
The last time a Republican presidential candidate won Minnesota was in 1972, with the nation at war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon seeking a second term. President Reagan, seeking his second term in 1984, is the last Republican to carry Iowa and Wisconsin.
But voters in the rural swaths and farther suburbs of all three states are turning to the GOP. Iowa went Democratic by barely 4,000 votes four years ago, while Wisconsin was decided by just 6,000. The gap in Minnesota was slightly larger, but the state has elected a Republican senator and governor.
"If I had to bet now, I'd bet we'd win all three," said Kerry adviser Tad Devine. "Now, we'll have to throw a lot at them to win, particularly Iowa and Wisconsin, but that's fine. The president is going to have to devote a lot of resources to compete for them. I'd prefer we play on our turf."
Polls show the race close in the upper Mississippi, with Bush faring best in Wisconsin. He is doing nearly as well in Iowa. Kerry's strongest state in the region is Minnesota, and the race is essentially tied there.
Polls also show voters here favor Bush over Kerry on the question of who would best fight terrorism and handle Iraq, while the two candidates are running even on the top issues of the economy and jobs. Throughout the region, Kerry's supporters are less enthusiastic about their candidate than Bush's are about him.
In La Crosse, Mayor John Medinger is a lifelong Democrat who cut his teeth on John Kennedy's campaign. He's backing Kerry but offers some reservations. "I think a lot of people wish Kerry would inspire them," he said. "A lot of people feel like 'I'm voting for Kerry, I wish I felt better about it.'"
John Trapp, a La Crosse businessman, feels much the same. "Honestly, when Howard Dean was taken from me I had to pick from the rest," he said.
But the president is vulnerable. Iraq has taken its toll here: 20 soldiers from Wisconsin have died in the conflict, 14 from Iowa and 11 from Minnesota.
Sipping coffee at a mall in Austin, Minn., Jack Murphy said he and his friends are troubled by the war.
"It's not good," Murphy said. "It will be the war in the next month. If it's not good, then I'll probably vote for the other guy."
Less troubled was Dianne Smith, of Mapleton, Minn., who is married to a Vietnam veteran and is perturbed by Kerry's constant references to his military service. "It just makes me uncomfortable," she said.
The unemployment rate in all three states is lower than the national average, but Minnesota has lost nearly 20,000 jobs under Bush and Iowa has lost nearly 30,000. Wisconsin has gained 200 jobs since January 2001.
"It's been a long four years for a lot of people," said C.J. Jordan, of Austin, Minn. "We're struggling with Bush. You can't live on the minimum wage around here."
Lea Latham, of Dubuque, said she's leaning toward Kerry because of the loss of jobs in her town. "Our work is going to China or wherever," she said, "and I don't like that."
Bruce Jentz, a La Crosse businessman, said Bush isn't perfect but he's decisive.
"There are people who disagree with the decisions he's made," Jentz said. "He's made the decisions and they've been tough ones to make."