WASHINGTON -- When John F. Kerry speaks to a town hall of invited guests or a hotel ballroom of $2,000-a-head donors, the Democratic standard-bearer usually has a good idea of how many Republicans are in the room.
Not the stealth protesters -- although a few sometimes slip in -- but rather, the swing voters who supported George W. Bush in 2000 or traditionally vote for GOP candidates, yet find themselves ambivalent or even angry about the direction of Bush's first term and reluctant to support a second one. Kerry aides keep a head count of these new faces in the crowd, and try to enlist them afterward in hopes of launching a Republicans-for-Kerry movement by this fall.
With Kerry and Bush virtually tied in the polls, and both men eager to broaden their base of supporters, the voters that Kerry increasingly and explicitly exhorts in battleground states are ''thoughtful Republicans," ''independent-minded Republicans," and ''non-Bush Republicans" -- and more subtly, the Independent voters who like bipartisan, all-together-now politicking. Kerry regularly hails GOP iconoclasts -- ''Teddy Roosevelt would scream right now" at Bush's economic and war policies, Kerry said at a Pennsylvania fund-raiser; ''my friend John McCain," he often name-drops -- and calls himself an ''entrepreneurial Democrat" as he seeks the crucial crossover votes that Ronald Reagan enjoyed from so-called Reagan Democrats.
''I know there are some Republicans here -- I want to talk to Republicans all across the country," Kerry told about 200 guests at a Las Vegas fund-raiser last month. ''For anyone here who considers themselves a conservative, let me just remind you: There is nothing conservative about driving up deficits as far as the eye can see and saddling our children with more debt. And there is nothing conservative about allowing your administration to flagrantly cross over that brilliant line drawn by the founding fathers that divides affairs of church and state. And there is nothing conservative about allowing your attorney general to disrespect our own constitution -- our civil rights and civil liberties."
In interviews with two dozen Republican voters at Kerry events over the last month, none of them embraced the label ''Kerry Republicans"; anybody-but-Bush Republicans came closer. These voters, echoed by Republican and nonpartisan pollsters, say Kerry has not come close to offering the empowering, engaging ideology that helped Reagan win over many Catholic, working-class, and anticommunist Democrats. Rather, Kerry has played to the disdain that some Republicans feel for Bush, and won some extra points with aspects of his own message -- with veterans, that he was a war hero in Vietnam, or for Republican women, that he backs abortion rights and early childhood education.
''I'm a registered Republican and that's the way I usually vote, but what Bush has done to Medicare and our hospitals -- there's no money and it has to change," said Mariatta Sandro Vasquez, a Miami nurse who attended a health care round-table hosted by Kerry.
''I haven't had a lot of exposure to Kerry, but I'm just becoming more and more impressed with his level-headedness and common sense," said Christina Lee Brown, a Republican who attended a Kerry event and fund-raiser in Louisville, and who is cofounder of an interfaith group that sponsors lectures and a popular annual festival. ''For example, his interest with Senator McCain in campaign finance reform -- I think that's desperately needed to stop wealthy people from swaying elections. He just understands the complexity of all the challenges more than Bush appreciates."
While Kerry uses the word Republicans in his appeals -- including asking Democrats to talk him up to their ''Republican friends" -- analysts say his real target is Independents and conservative Democratic swing voters instead. Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said an overview of recent polls indicated some slippage in Republican support for Bush, but no significant defections from the right to Kerry. Another analyst, Alan Abramowitz from Emory University, noted that a May 21-23 Gallup poll indicated that 89 percent of Republicans surveyed said they approved of Bush, but only 12 percent of Democrats do -- reflecting an unusually divided electorate that will make swing and party-switching voters more decisive this year.
''I don't think urging Republicans to vote for him will carry a swing state like Louisiana -- it's the white Catholic conservative Democratic voters in the southern part of the state he is appealing to when he says Bush isn't acting like a conservative," added Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.
Indeed, while some Republican and Independent voters may be critical of Bush, they still have questions about supporting a Massachusetts Democrat -- questions that Kerry, with his habit of offering views that are shaded in gray, has not entirely answered. Will he raise their taxes? When he calls himself a ''fair trader," what part of ''free trade" doesn't he like? Does he have a firm spine, or do Bush's ''flip-flopper" ads hold some truth?
Some leading Republicans say Bush's record likewise holds appeal for some Democrats, and his Republican support is like bedrock.
''Our support among Republicans is better than Reagan in '84 and certainly Bush in '92, and better than Clinton enjoyed among Democrats in 1996. And I don't think Kerry can chip away at that with just rhetoric," said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist with the Bush campaign.
''In the 18 swing states that will decide this election, conservatives outnumber liberals almost 2 to 1. Kerry's going to have a very hard time winning over so many people in the center or toward the right," Dowd said.
Inside the Kerry camp, advisers optimistically believe that support for Bush is ''soft" among as many as 15 to 20 percent of registered Republicans, and that Kerry has a history of going his own way as a Democrat that may appeal to these voters . He became a law-and-order prosecutor in the 1970s when many of his fellow antiwar protestors loathed that kind of establishment embrace; as a first-term senator, he was among the Democrats who broke with some party leaders to support Republican-led deficit reduction plans. He has positioned himself as a centrist and sometimes hawk on foreign policy.
At fund-raisers, Kerry has had opportunities to make his case one-on-one to business executives who are usually found in Republican circles.
Rothenberg said Kerry's economic platform in particular could draw some Republicans into his camp, such as his proposal to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent.
''When I speak to Republican business groups, it's not unusual for one or two Republicans to come up to me and express some dissatisfaction with Bush -- on Iraq, spending, leadership, whatever," Rothenberg said.
''Kerry doesn't have to become beloved among Republicans -- they're never going to really embrace him -- but this election will be decided so narrowly that he just needs some Republicans who will say, 'Kerry's not going to be all that bad for business, while Bush isn't inspiring a lot of confidence right now.' "