Often dismissed as too small, too isolated and too Democratic to worry about in presidential contests, Hawaii suddenly has a close race.

Democrats say Sen. John Kerry (search) still has an edge over President Bush in the contest for Hawaii's four electoral votes, but the race has become awfully tight for their comfort. With late poll closings — 11 p.m. EST on Nov. 2 — and a slow count, Hawaii politicians are talking about offering a dramatic conclusion to what could be an ultra-close national election.

"We may make the difference," said Linda Chu Takayama (search), campaign manager for Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye (search), who is all but assured of victory in his own race for an eighth term. "Surprise, surprise. The polls I've seen show it up and down but always within the margin of error."

The only statewide media poll, more than two months ago, showed Kerry leading Bush, 48-41. Private polling reviewed by strategists for both Kerry and Bush more recently suggests the race is still that close.

Hawaii may not be a big-vote, difference-making tossup state like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, but the race is remarkable in a state Democrat Al Gore (search) won by 20 percentage points in 2000 — and one that has been solid blue on most election maps.

Democratic strategists in Washington privately admit they have neglected Hawaii, but no more. They have dispatched political operatives to shore up Kerry's support and believe the race is now about as close as Washington state and Oregon, two long-standing battlegrounds that both parties think are leaning toward Kerry.

Open campaigning for the presidency is just getting started in the islands. The first major rally for Kerry and Sen. John Edwards was Friday near the state Capitol. Campaign signs for Bush and vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney are just now popping up along roadsides.

Local candidates in leis line major thoroughfares and freeway entrances with their own signs in Hawaii's colorful honk-and-wave style of campaigning. But during the campaign no major national political figure, much less Bush or Kerry, has set foot in the state, 4,800 miles from Washington.

"They're going to rely on us to carry the election here," said Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon are the only GOP presidential candidates ever to win Hawaii's vote. They, like Bush, were running for second terms.

Republicans say Bush has been helped by cable television ads running in the islands, where cable viewership is high. Bush and his party have outspent Kerry $17 million to $5 million on national cable TV ads that include Hawaii.

Also, with the tourism industry recovering from the Sept. 11 attacks, Hawaii's unemployment rate is 3.1 percent, lowest in the nation. And Republicans say they're doing better than expected among the state's large number of veterans.

On the other hand, Democratic Sen. Inouye told The Associated Press while campaigning on Oahu this week that anger over the deployment of a disproportionate number of National Guard troops from Hawaii, the state's highest-in-the-nation gasoline prices and Bush's support for gun legislation are factors that help Kerry.

Also, Ralph Nader failed to submit enough valid signatures to be included on the ballot this year as an independent after winning 6 percent in 2000 running on the Green Party ticket.

Lingle, elected in 2002 as the state's first Republican governor in four decades, has campaigned with Bush on the mainland and has traveled to Iraq to boost state support for the war and the 10,000 Hawaii-based troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At home, Lingle has played Bush surrogate for weeks as she campaigns for Republicans to wrest control of the Hawaii House.

On the Democratic side, Inouye said, "Every day I'm talking about Kerry. It's going to be close but not as close as people think."

Former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, who lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to Lingle, said the Democrats weren't assuming anything this time. Hirono, head of Hawaii Women for Kerry-Edwards, said, "I've heard the Republicans say they're going to deliver Hawaii for Bush. Well, maybe they're taking Hawaii for granted, but we're not."

Said Republican Party Chairman Brennon Morioka: "Every indication that we have is that it's almost a dead heat right now."