COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican and Bush campaign officials in the battleground state of Ohio say they have been operating “under the radar” to target 57 rural counties in the state, using direct mail and phone banks to boost turnout in those heavily Republican counties.
“These are the ones that will make a difference, giving us 150,000 additional votes,” said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
The party’s decision to funnel resources into increasing turnout in rural counties, other party officials say, has escaped the notice of pollsters and the press — and even misled some Republicans into thinking that President Bush’s re-election campaign has let itself be outperformed by Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the state.
“The Democrats have been beating the pants off us in the air and on the ground,” confided a Republican county official in Columbus.
Polls indicate a neck-and-neck race for 20 Electoral College votes in Ohio, a state that Mr. Bush carried 50 percent to 46 percent over Democrat Al Gore four years ago.
A new Zogby survey of 601 likely voters released yesterday showed Mr. Bush leading in Ohio 46 percent to 44 percent. That four-day poll, conducted through Monday, had a 4.1 percentage point margin of error.
A narrow edge in one survey is little comfort to Republicans in Ohio, where polls have varied widely in recent weeks, showing Mr. Bush ahead by as many as five percentage points (in an Oct. 15 to 18 Fox News survey) and Mr. Kerry leading by as many as four points (in an Oct. 17 to 21 Ohio University poll).
Public polls, however, may not represent voters in Republican-leaning rural areas, Mr. Bennett said.
In September, it appeared that Ohio might go handily to Mr. Bush. Gallup’s Sept. 4 to 7 survey showed the president leading 52 percent to 43 percent in the state, and a University of Cincinnati poll had him up by 11 percentage points on Sept. 12 to 18.
Such numbers might explain why Team Bush felt it was safe to schedule 19 days in October without a presidential visit to Ohio. Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry kept campaigning there, seeking to avoid what many analysts say was a bungle by the Gore campaign in 2000, when the Democrat reacted to a strong Bush showing in September polls by abandoning Ohio early, setting up the all-or-nothing showdown in Florida.
Mr. Gore wound up losing Ohio to Mr. Bush by only 165,019 votes, even though Democrats in 2000 pulled their candidate and most of his advertising out of the state six weeks before Election Day. Because of overlapping media markets, both Democrats and Republicans say, that move also might have cost Mr. Gore West Virginia.
Mr. Kerry hasn’t repeated that mistake, and Democrats say they have another advantage that Mr. Gore didn’t have — a much higher intensity of animosity toward Mr. Bush.
“I’ve been involved in politics a long time,” Johnnie Maier, the Stark County Democratic Party chairman, said at party headquarters in Canton. “Up till this year, I never used words ‘Democratic’ and ‘unity’ in the same sentence. But Bush has unified us beyond my wildest expectations.”
If Democrats have learned its Ohio lesson from four years ago, so has the Republican Party — and thus the focus on rural areas of the state.
“Clearly, the Bush campaign learned from 2000,” said Jo Ann Davidson, Bush campaign Ohio Valley regional coordinator. “Look where the president and Vice President [Dick] Cheney have been campaigning — in counties that haven’t seen a presidential candidates in ages.”