Undecideds May Tip Pennsylvania Balance

Put Barbara White down as undecided in the race for the White House.

"The economy makes me afraid of Bush, but I'm scared of Kerry because of security," she says, standing in the doorway of her home outside Philadelphia.

The mother of three sons and employed in her husband's business, the 44-year-old White says she sided with Democrat Al Gore (search) four years ago. The vote she casts this year — in suburbs that the former vice president carried on his way to a statewide victory — will help determine whether Sen. John Kerry (search) holds Pennsylvania or President Bush prevails this time.

Numerous polls point to a close finish, and in surveys taken before last week's debate, Bush is running better in the suburbs than four years ago. "That's because of the effective job Republicans did on national security and terrorism," Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell (search) said recently.

The votes of women like White aren't all that matter in the nation's sixth most populous state — a land of 21 electoral votes, tight polls, frequent visits by both candidates, nonstop television ads and an army of organizers, paid and volunteer.

— Republicans hunt new voters statewide in Bush's conservative, churchgoing base, and one poll underscores the reason. Nearly one-quarter of his supporters listed family and moral issues as uppermost in their minds.

— Democrats hope to strengthen their margins in Philadelphia. John Street, the city's black mayor, won a new term last year after the independent group America Coming Together, or ACT, helped register more than 80,000 new voters in a rehearsal for the presidential campaign.

— Republicans look to whittle their customary deficits around Pittsburgh, where suburban shopping malls sit on land once occupied by steel mills.

— Democrats aim to build on Gore's heavy vote totals around Wilkes-Barre and Scranton — hoping that job losses rather than anti-abortion sentiment will determine voting patterns.

— Republicans talk of stressing a need to limit malpractice awards in southeastern Pennsylvania, citing reports of physicians are leaving the area because of a plague of baseless lawsuits.

— Rendell and others say Kerry's support for abortion rights, a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons and expanded federal support for stem cell research can appeal to moderate women in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Throughout the state, an organizational war has raged for months, and limited evidence suggests an advantage for Bush's campaign.

In one recent ABC poll of Pennsylvania voters, 21 percent reported having been contacted in person or by phone by the president's campaign. Only 14 percent said they had heard from Kerry's.

"I was told to build the largest grass-roots campaign in the history of Pennsylvania politics," said Guy Ciarrocchi, executive director of the state Bush-Cheney campaign. Asked how he has made out, he straightened a few of the neatly arranged small stacks of papers on his desk.

"Every precinct in Pennsylvania has someone who is responsible for it," Ciarrocchi said. All 9,530 of them.

"Everyone has a theory" to overcome Bush's 200,000 vote deficit of four years ago, concentrating on one group or another, he said.

Democrats say that in fact, Bush's strategy is simple.

"Republicans are trying to register every living Christian," said Tony Podesta, who ran President Clinton's Pennsylvania campaign in 1996 and is back for Kerry this year.

Unlike Bush, Kerry is relying to a large extent on ACT and other anti-Bush allies to do the labor-intensive organizational work.

"The Kerry campaign has probably been less focused on that end of it and more focused on the day-to-day operations of running a campaign operation in a battleground state," said state Democratic chairman T.J. Rooney.

ACT says it has helped add 130,000 voters to the rolls, not counting tens of thousands from last year's Philadelphia mayoral election, and plan to have 12,000 paid workers on the street election day.

ACT claims about 80 paid employees in the state and several office, including one in the basement of a Friends Meeting House in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Three young paid staff members set out recently to knock on doors in one suburban neighborhood, and it quickly became apparent that not all houses were created equal. Instead, they knock only on the doors where they think they'll find a new Kerry supporter or volunteer.

"I'm not affiliated with any political party," Jake Fisher of ACT tells Barbara White when she comes to the door.

She agrees to answer a few questions and volunteers information about the issues she's interested in. Fisher tallies her responses on a handheld personal digital assistant, information that will be transferred to a database later.

"We're getting slaughtered" on prescription drug costs, White says in an interview after Fisher heads for the next house, adding that her husband has bills of several hundred dollars a month. Moments later, she volunteers that she appreciated the refund check she received on the family's taxes.

She seems of two minds about Iraq and the overall war on terrorism.

"I'm not sure where I stand on his aggressiveness," White says of Bush. "People are getting killed and that upsets me. At the same time, we have a problem with terrorists and we have to be bold.

"And I'm not sure about Kerry ... I don't get that from him."

A few doors away, Joan Myers says she, too is undecided, and the war is the issue uppermost in her mind.

In all, Fisher and the other ACT canvassers spent about 90 minutes at their task. Their total in one small skirmish of a large war to organize a state of 12.2 million: 44 doors knocked on, only 14 responses.