CLEVELAND – Lifelong Democrats and union loyalists came out in droves for John Kerry's (search) recent bus tour through Ohio's industrial heartland. A week later, President Bush's rallies elsewhere in the state drew thousands of Republican stalwarts, as well as some conservatives new to politics.
In the spring season of the presidential campaign, the throngs along the campaign trail are friendly, flush with party faithful.
The so-called swing voters who will be critical in deciding the election typically don't turn up at political events until the fall, when they are paying closer attention and deciding whom to support.
"Getting those reluctant voters out to look at the candidate is what they're all after, but it's harder to do that than it is to get out those who sleep, eat or drink Republican or Democratic politics," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington. Interest from independents and undecideds, he said, will come later.
Until then, it's all about the rallying the base.
Candidates often go where crowds will be friendly because that usually means favorable local news coverage.
"There's a reason why John Kerry went to the heart of Ohio's industrial sector and George Bush went to the growing exurbs of western Ohio," said GOP consultant Mark Weaver. "Those weren't random choices. You can bet neither of them would have been as well received if they had switched routes."
The highly partisan attendance at Kerry and Bush events is not surprising, given the polarized U.S. electorate. Nationwide, 30 percent of people define themselves as Republican and 31 percent as Democrats, a Pew survey found.
Overall, the public is about evenly split on whether Bush should be re-elected.
"This is the season for partisan loyalists to get out and get fired up," said Greg Haas, a Democratic strategist in Ohio. "Those few in the middle are still staying at home watching this all play out."
On a bus tour promoting his plans for job creation two weeks ago, Kerry stopped in downtown Cleveland, Youngstown and Toledo, liberal strongholds with union ties and high manufacturing job losses.
An invitation-only audience packed into the Slovenian National Home in Cleveland when Kerry held a question-and-answer session with Democratic mayors from Ohio. Across the street, a handful of Republicans held Bush-Cheney '04 signs. One strung plastic flip flops around his neck, illustrating the GOP assertion that Kerry flip-flops on issues.
Earlier, in Youngstown, union rank-and-file, retirees and high school students packed Federal Plaza for a public rally.
Firefighters in yellow union shirts strode through the crowd, American flags sticking out of their jeans pockets. "Kerry has a message. He's going to bring jobs back here," said Silverio Caggiano, 42, a Youngstown fire captain.
Walter Rusnak, 67, a retired university admissions director and Democratic precinct captain from Campbell, showed up simply to see Kerry in person. "Here's a guy who fought, has medals and everything, and the other guy dodged the war and he's the one leading this country. It boggles my mind."
Thirty-year-old Lauren Kampf, a social worker in nearby Warren and a lifelong Democrat married to a Republican, hoisted her 6-year-old daughter, Allyson, on her shoulder to take a picture of the Massachusetts senator.
"We've been talking a lot about why Mommy votes for John Kerry and why Daddy votes for George Bush. I'm raising a good little Democrat over here," Kampf quipped.
A week after Kerry's tour, Bush visited Maumee, Dayton, Lebanon and Cincinnati, all in conservative-tilting western Ohio.
In Dayton, 1,200 GOP backers attended an invitation-only town hall meeting. The Bush-Cheney campaign provides tickets to local groups such as the Montgomery County Republican Party in hopes that party loyalists who see the president will sign up to help get him re-elected.
One of the Republicans was 53-year-old Linda Bowers, a nursing assistant from Springfield who has managed to get glimpses of Presidents Ford, Nixon and Reagan. She said that being a Republican isn't the only reason she supports Bush. "I have a job," Bowers said.
In Lebanon, Robert Riley of Milford attended his first political rally. The 40-year-old Republican, a single father of two children under age 10, noted Bush's support for education and his tax cuts, saying: "I have made up my mind. I don't need to have my support strengthened."
Nearby, Linda Howson, a Republican small-business owner who voted for Bush in 2000 but hasn't been active in politics, brought her two Yorkie dogs, wearing red, white and blue bandanas around their necks.
"I think he knows that his main support is from the small towns, the grass roots," said Howson, 49. "I just think he needs to be reinforced once in a while and know that we believe in him."
Despite the highly partisan crowds at both events, a couple of stray undecided voters did show up.
In Lebanon, Rosie Leugers stood quietly on the fringe of the pro-Bush crowd, holding a sign that said "Pro-Life — Leave Iraq." The Republican voted for Bush four years ago but is undecided this time. "I thought it was important to attend this one to show my concern" about his Iraq policies, she said. "I think he needs to hear everyone."
At Kerry's Youngstown rally, Robert Mitchell, a 37-year-old job placement specialist who voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, said, "I'm not leaning either way. I came simply to hear what he had to say, mostly on jobs. It's very early," Mitchell said. Yet, even he was carrying a "Kerry for President" sign.