MILWAUKEE -- For all the hoopla over Ohio as a political battleground, strategists on both sides of the presidential campaign are increasingly looking northward toward the Great Lakes region, eyeing three states -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan -- as crucial in a race that for now at least appears to be trending toward President Bush.
In the last election, Vice President Al Gore won all three states, for a combined 39 electoral votes, and it is difficult to calculate a victory for Senator John F. Kerry without them this time around.
Bush is campaigning aggressively in all three, forcing Kerry to engage in a protracted battle over states Democrats had once hoped to lock down early in order to focus on more Republican-leaning battlegrounds.
In short, Kerry is no longer expanding into Republican turf as much as he is defending his own.
Kerry's struggle to hold the Upper Midwest is one of the first problems Democrats mention when they describe their anxieties about the campaign -- especially faced with recent polls, such as one released yesterday by CNN/USA Today/Gallup that suggested Bush was leading Kerry in Wisconsin by 8 percentage points. Of the trio, Wisconsin is the site of the most intense campaigning, having supported Gore over Bush by less than 6,000 votes last time.
''Bush right now is smelling blood," said former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile.
Republicans, she added, are trying to ''force the Democrats to put more resources there and take more resources away from the states where Kerry can give Bush a run for his money."
Kerry is still deeply engaged in states that Bush won in the last race, especially Ohio, and Democrats, including Brazile, point out that Gore had to fight in the Upper Midwest until the bitter end of the 2000 race.
Wisconsin went for Gore by less than 1 percentage point. Minnesota and Wisconsin have notorious independent streaks, making it unwise for Democrats to take either for granted, though both have voted for the Democratic candidate for the past 20 years.
Demographic trends, however, have led Republicans to believe they are gaining ground in those two states. Bush campaign advisers point to growth in exurban areas as a development in their favor, since they have seen evidence in the past two election cycles that those areas tend to prefer Republicans.
''Wisconsin is a state that leans our way now," said Matthew Dowd, senior Bush campaign strategist.
Minnesota, he added, is still a tossup, but even that satisfies him. ''It's a state they [the Kerry strategists] wanted to solidify," Dowd said shortly after the Republican National Convention ended last month. ''They can't win without Minnesota and Wisconsin."
No new public poll out of Minnesota has been released since the Republican convention; last month, Minnesota was a tie.
The apparently widening gap in Wisconsin reflects national figures that show Bush having an edge coming out of the convention, according to Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in Madison. It is not, he said, necessarily a trend at the local level. While the gap is ominous for Democrats, it is not an irreparable trend, Maslin said.
''But we're 50 days away, and we need to turn it around pretty quickly," he said.
Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan described any state-by-state edge at this point as part of a national bounce.
''This is his high-water mark, coming out of their convention," Meehan said, referring to the Bush camp. ''It goes downhill from there, and we're going to have seven weeks of being able to match them dollar for dollar in those three states and the other battleground states, which is a great advantage for us."
The picture is different in Michigan, where Bush went on a daylong bus trip yesterday: The economic outlook there is worse than in the other two states, and Michigan is reliably more Democratic because of the influence of labor unions in the automotive industry. Bush did not venture near the Democratic stronghold of Detroit yesterday, concentrating instead on the Democratic areas of Muskegon and Battle Creek.
In 2000, Bush lost the Republican primary there to Senator John McCain of Arizona, before losing the state in the general election by 5 percentage points. Kerry still leads in Michigan, according to a Rassmussen Reports poll released yesterday. Still, as he did in 2000, Bush is hoping to continue forcing Kerry to spend time and money in the state, which carries 17 electoral votes.
Because of changes in population, the combined electoral college vote for the three states has dropped from 39 to 37. But that still represents a significant prize, explaining the flood of advertisements and frequent visits by both sides in recent months.
The candidates' travel schedules illustrate the intensity of interest in the Upper Midwest. The Milwaukee area alone has seen all four members of both tickets in recent days, starting with a visit by Bush to the suburb of West Allis immediately after the Republican convention.
Vice President Dick Cheney held a town hall meeting in downtown Milwaukee Friday, just after a visit to Sheboygan and Oak Creek by vice presidential nominee John Edwards. Kerry was scheduled to arrive in Milwaukee last night for campaign events there and in Madison, the state capital.
Last week, Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, met with Bush at the White House to discuss the status of the race in his state.
''They're excited about Wisconsin," Ryan, cochairman of Bush's campaign in Wisconsin, said of the White House.
The excitement is no less palpable on the ground -- on both sides.
When Cheney's motorcade pulled through the downtown area in the middle of a work day, dozens of protesters lined the streets and waited to harangue those at the event afterward.
The two sides shouted at each other -- not an uncommon sight in this contentious election cycle, but a remarkable one nonetheless for a vice presidential visit.
At a sold-out Milwaukee performance Saturday night by comedian Bill Maher, famous for ripping into Bush, fired-up patrons who left the show at the Pabst Theater loudly fretting about their prospects in November.
''Oh my God, if Bush wins, people are going to move to another country," said Gretchen Wick, 43, a Milwaukee teacher who went to the Maher show.
A die-hard Democrat, she said she has never felt as worried about politics as she does now.