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US political divide mirrored in Iowa

Page 2 of 3 -- 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.   Continued...

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