SCRANTON, Pa. – By nearly all accounts, Pennsylvania should be ensconced in John Kerry's (search) column.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 400,000, Al Gore won the state by 5 percentage points in 2000 and Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry (search), hands out millions of dollars through foundations in Pittsburgh.
Yet, President Bush has made this battleground state — and its 21 electoral votes, the nation's fifth-largest prize on Election Day — highly competitive.
The Republican incumbent has spent $7.5 million on campaign ads in the state and has visited 29 times since taking office, with plans to return Friday on a bus tour. Vice President Dick Cheney (search) was in Pittsburgh and Altoona on Sunday. The Bush-Cheney campaign, which opened its state headquarters in Harrisburg in April, claims to have signed up 37,000 volunteers to rally support down to neighborhood precincts.
Voters say they don't know very much about Kerry — even though the four-term Massachusetts senator has spent at least $5.5 million on ads in the state — and will likely base their ballots on whether they support Bush.
"Unfortunately, it's one of those situations where I dislike the president more than I like the current Democratic candidate," said Democratic voter Peter Evans, 46, an actor and self-described "full-time dad" from Philadelphia who was touring Scranton's steam locomotive museum last week with his son, Jamie.
"Do I know a lot about Kerry?" Evans asked. "Not as much as I want to before I actually cast my vote."
Pennsylvania's gritty, industrial cities, its farmlands and its once-thriving anthracite coal towns give both candidates a perfect backdrop to talk about the issues on which they focus nationally: the economy, health care and the war in Iraq.
The state lost a net 31,400 jobs since 2000 and has one of the highest medical malpractice insurance rates in the country, forcing doctors to open practices elsewhere. At least 46 Pennsylvania soldiers have died in Iraq — the third-highest casualty total for any state in the country.
Though a Quinnipiac University survey last month showed Kerry leading Bush in Pennsylvania, 49-43 percent, the race would tighten considerably if independent hopeful Ralph Nader qualifies for the ballot. A three-way contest has Kerry and Bush running neck-and-neck, at 44 percent and 43 percent, respectively, with Nader taking 7 percent, the poll showed. By comparison, Bush and Gore were tied in a poll of Pennsylvania voters at this point in 2000.
Pollster Clay Richards said Kerry's message and campaign issues "haven't really struck home."
Pennsylvanians "don't know much about Kerry going in, other than the fact that he's a senator from New England and has a patrician style," Richards said. "So they haven't really warmed up to him, and he may not be an easy guy to warm up to to begin with."
Kerry's state campaign manager, Tony Podesta, predicted voters will gravitate to the Democrat after he is nominated at his party's convention later this month. He compared Kerry's situation to that of Bill Clinton, in 1992 a little-known governor also trying to oust a Bush from the White House.
"Bush is a very well-known commodity, and they barely know who John Kerry is," Podesta said. "Kerry will do well at the convention and during the debates, and that's where he closes the sale."
Kerry has visited Pennsylvania 10 times since 2003. He kicked off a campaign swing Monday in Pittsburgh, where his wife lives and basically serves as a local matriarch. She is heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune and was married to Pennsylvania Republican Sen. H. John Heinz III when he died in a 1991 plane crash.
Along with Kerry's ads, liberal groups seeking to defeat Bush have spent $4 million.
Pennsylvania is the president's top opportunity to win a state he lost in 2000, said Guy Ciarrocchi, Bush campaign's state executive director. Bush lost by 200,000 votes to Gore in 2000. Two other major battleground states this year, Florida and Ohio, both went for Bush in 2000.
Aware of the strong anti-Bush sentiment among state Democrats, Ciarrocchi said Kerry has run such a lackluster campaign in Pennsylvania that voters have no choice but to base their ballots on Bush.
"The president is identified as being someone of conviction," Ciarrocchi said. "You know he has a vision. Whereas, with Senator Kerry, it's not clear yet what he stands for or what his campaign is going to be about. When you run that kind of campaign, it's hard to attract that kind of passion."
Mary Lee Kerr, of State College, who writes grant applications for nonprofit groups, supported former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during the Democratic primaries before turning to Kerry. She's hosted house parties for Kerry supporters but is still looking for a defining moment for her candidate.
"I feel like he's got a wide range of issues that he's good on, but he hasn't got that, you know, brand issue quite yet," said Kerr, 42.
"I guess I'm driven by the desire to get rid of Bush, more than the desire to elect Kerry," she said. "But the more I read about him, the more I think he's a pretty good guy."