DES MOINES -- Iowa prides itself on being ''America's heartland," a solid, feet-on-the-ground place with a history of moderate politics. But as the 2004 election approaches, Iowa's politics are as polarized as the rest of the nation.
''Iowa is stuck in the same dilemma as the rest of America," said Steffen W. Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University and host of ''The Dr. Politics Show" on WOI public radio in Ames. ''We have very conservative areas, some blue-collar areas, a peace movement, and a large Christian evangelical community."
The state's population is whiter, older, less affluent, and more rural than the rest of the country. Nevertheless, it is a state that reflects the national schism -- ''a country that is horribly divided," Schmidt said. Four years ago, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in Iowa by 4,144 votes out of 1.3 million cast. This year, Bush and John F. Kerry are competing fiercely for the state's seven electoral votes.
The local debate breaks down along national themes. Republicans interviewed last week uniformly said Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism is the defining issue of the race in Iowa. Democrats said the defining issues are jobs, health care, and the president's conduct of the war in Iraq, which they distinguish from the terrorism threat.
And so Iowa remains a battleground in this presidential election, drawing an extraordinary number of visits by candidates and surrogates each week.
At the campaign's outset, the parties were prepared to fight over about 20 states. The number has shrunk by about half as the race has unfolded. But barring some seismic shift, Iowa will be a hot spot until Election Day.
An array of pollsters and handicappers have Iowa among nine to 12 states considered tossups in the battle between Bush and Kerry. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has long held there are 10: a top tier of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with a combined 68 electoral votes, and a second tier of Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, West Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, and Minnesota, with a combined 48 electoral votes. Together, the 10 states represent 116 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
''If the race jogs one way or the other at the end, six to 10 states will be changing sides from where they were in 2000, probably all in the same direction," Sabato predicted.
By any measure -- campaign advertising expenditures on the air or a flurry of organizational activity on the ground -- Iowa is at the center of a furious struggle for votes.
Last Tuesday, for example, the campaigns and their allied organizations aired spots costing more than $2.5 million in 20 states, and $125,000 of that was spent on Iowa TV, according to data compiled by a campaign operative who monitors all television spending. Nationally, the Bush campaign outspent Kerry by a 2-to-1 ratio that day, airing $1.1 million worth of spots in 20 states, compared with $530,000 by the Kerry campaign in 11 states.
The Bush campaign was helped that day by Republican-leaning Progress for America, a so-called 527 political organization, which put up $77,000 in ads in Iowa and Wisconsin. The Democratic National Committee buttressed Kerry with $780,000 in air time in 20 states, including many areas where the Kerry campaign was dark while Bush was on the air. In addition, the Service Employees International Union, which supports Kerry, put up $29,000 worth of ads that day in Wisconsin.
In a close race, turnout could be decisive, and both sides are constructing elaborate on-the-ground organizations to identify supporters and pull them to the polls on Election Day -- or much earlier, as is the case in Iowa and a number of other states that allow either early voting or absentee balloting with few restrictions.
Iowa may have more experienced political field operatives per capita than any state. Because of its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, the Hawkeye State every four years produces hundreds of new operatives who are capable of running a precinct or county operation on election day.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday indicated Bush was leading Kerry in support among likely voters in Iowa, 47 percent to 46 percent, reflecting the Bush bounce since the Republican National Convention. Before the convention, Kerry held a slight lead in most polls in Iowa. Democratic Governor Thomas J. Vilsack, in an interview with the Globe, said the Republicans have gained momentum in Iowa because Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their family members ''have almost lived here in the past 45 days."
But Democrats in the state think they have a secret weapon -- a demonstrated ability to generate huge numbers of absentee ballots, banking votes for their candidates long before the polls open on Election Day. ''Iowa is unique because we do it so well," Vilsack said. ''We have the best state party organization for getting absentee votes in."
Absentee votes can make the difference in Iowa. Four years ago, in ballots cast on Election Day, Gore trailed Bush by 7,253 votes, records of the secretary of state show. But when the absentee ballots were tabulated, he pulled out a 4,144-vote victory -- less than a third of 1 percent of the total vote.
More than 1 in 5 votes were cast early that year. Vilsack and Democratic US Senator Tom Harkin, both up for reelection in 2002, embarked on a joint two-year drive to boost the figure. Two years ago, both coasted to victory over Republican challengers. Of Harkin's votes, 26 percent were absentee ballots.
Democrats have redoubled the effort in Iowa this year, with help from America Coming Together, another 527 organization, so named for the section of the tax code under which politically active nonprofit groups operate. ACT, which has independent get-out-the-vote operations in the other battleground states, has eight offices, 20 paid staff members, and 50 paid canvassers in Iowa. They have been knocking on doors since June.
Technically an independent group but one that acts as a shadow version of the Democratic Party's operation, ACT has been targeting ''marginal voters" -- registered but with spotty voting history -- said ACT director for Iowa, Jeff Link, who knows this drill. He was Gore's Iowa state director in 2000 and managed Harkin's campaign two years ago.
Like their Democratic counterparts, ACT canvassers visit homes of registered Democrats, but also independents who live in precincts with ''Democratic performance of 52 percent or higher," Link said. They sound out voters on issues of concern and whether they will fill out a request for an absentee ballot. The answers are entered on hand-held computers that transmit the information electronically to a central database.
To date, the Democratic/ ACT efforts seem effective. A Globe survey of auditors in 18 counties indicates that requests for absentee ballots are arriving in record numbers. Several officials said they were having trouble keeping up with the volume, and one described the phenomenon as ''crazy."
In many small, rural counties, officials said they did not keep a tally by party affiliation of those seeking ballots, which will be mailed out starting Thursday. But in six counties that did and which, when combined, have roughly equal party registration, the numbers tilt heavily Democratic -- 25,631 to 7,470.
Republicans do not concede the absentee vote to Democrats, but they do not pursue the early ballots with the same intensity.
''There's a different philosophy in approach," said Dave Roederer, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Iowa. ''We do the same thing but not with the same number out walking, and we target only what we consider infrequent voters. Democrats go for those as well, but they also go after all voters. On election day, Republicans historically turn out in higher percentages."
In early summer, the Republicans began a door-to-door campaign, identified receptive voters, and mailed them forms to request absentee ballots. That was followed up with ''robo-calls," featuring the voice of Bush asking recipients to fill out their ballots, sign them, and mail them in.
Nationally, the Republican emphasis has been on its so-called ''72-hour program," a monthslong organizing effort designed to boost GOP turnout through ramped up voter contact in the last days of campaigns, when the party often saw itself losing ground in close races to Democrats who were aided by strong urban organizations and labor unions.
A major force in Iowa is a large, politically influential bloc of conservative Christians, who in 1988 propelled Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson to a second-place finish in the state's Republican presidential caucuses. Nationwide, a Republican priority is to mobilize several million evangelicals who did not vote four years ago.
Link of ACT said there have been few visible signs of evangelical organizing, although he assumes it is happening.
''I think they're kind of organizing themselves," Roederer said. ''It's fair to say the evangelicals are very much involved in the election process. I can't say they're involved in the campaign."
More visible are the foot soldiers, the volunteers from Iowa's 99 counties, where the party committees labor with little recognition. As loyalty to parties has waned, these are the true believers -- farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, and auto workers -- who make the phone calls to voters and make chicken soup or chili for the get-out-the-vote rally.
There are thousands of them, like Rusty Harder, a businessman and Republican chairman in Story County, north of Des Moines. He knows the race could be close again, so the local phone-banking has picked up. ''We thought we were going to win here in 2000 but didn't," he said of both his county and Iowa going narrowly for Gore. ''People are very serious about it. They are making sure the president doesn't miss reelection," Harder said.
Two dozen activists gathered one night last week in a drab storefront on a side street in tiny Toledo, 60 miles northeast of Des Moines, to plan a rally, phone banks, and a Tama County Democrats presence at the upcoming Toledo Heritage Days parade and pork dinner.
In Tama County, extra effort could make the difference. Four years ago, Gore carried the county by 11 votes out of 8,315 cast.
Attorney Allan Richards, disillusioned with party leaders, quit as Tama County chairman after the last election. But his disdain for Bush and his policies has brought him back. ''I just can't watch him. Ever since he was elected," Richards said, gesturing sharply, as if turning off a television set or changing the channel.
That's Iowa politics, with an edge.
''After all these years, it's almost like there's an obligation in Iowa to be involved because we make the first choice in the [presidential] caucuses," Schmidt said. ''Politics in Iowa, it's like corn. It's all around you."