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."
In 2000, Mr. Gore won a majority of Ohio's urban and suburban counties, while Mr. Bush won the majority of small rural counties.
Mr. Bush's 2000 victory overthrew decades of conventional wisdom about Ohio politics. The old road map to Republican victory in Ohio centered on limiting the Democrats' margin of victory in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County to about 100,000 votes, then winning both Franklin County (Columbus) and Hamilton County (Cincinnati).
But in 2000, Mr. Bush lost Cuyahoga by 160,000 votes, also lost Franklin County and won Hamilton by less than the usual Republican margin, yet still won the state because of a big Republican advantage in rural counties.
Those rural counties "overperformed" for Mr. Bush, analysts say, in part because many Republican voters in the past 20 years have moved farther from urban areas, from old-line suburbs into so-called "exurbs" in previously rural areas.
Such shifts in Ohio's political terrain have both campaigns exploring uncharted territory. Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, have been campaigning this year in traditionally Republican areas that Mr. Gore ignored in 2000. During Mr. Bush's 19-day absence from Ohio, Mr. Kerry made news with three trips to the state -- including a much-publicized goose hunt near Youngstown.
High-profile visits by the Democratic candidates and a heavy rotation of pro-Kerry TV ads have some Ohio Republicans worried that the Bush campaign miscalculated. But if Bush chief strategist Karl Rove is focusing on turning out rural voters, said the Republican official in Columbus, that might explain the appearance of a faltering effort by the Bush campaign.
"If in the rural Republican farmland areas, the grass roots is so overcharged for President Bush that they are going to come out in a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio, then you can get away with calling the state for Bush and backing your [TV ad] buys out in your urban centers, because you can nail your rurals and get the vote you needed," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The wild card in Ohio is a surge of new voters on the rolls, chiefly the result of voter-registration campaigns by pro-Kerry forces.
"In Franklin County alone, we have had unprecedented numbers of new voters register -- 127,000 this year, compared to 63,000 new registered voters in 2000," said Matthew Damschroder, the Franklin County Board of Elections director.
Franklin County is a "large media market with a lot of Republican counties around us," he said. "This county is up for grabs."
Mr. Bennett acknowledged that the Kerry campaign has gotten a major boost from so-called "527" groups, such as Americans Coming Together (ACT), funded by billionaire George Soros and other wealthy liberals.
"I've hired the largest payroll ever for this election," the state Republican chief said, "while the Ohio Democratic party has simply outsourced its grass-roots organizing to ACT."
He said ACT's eight Ohio field offices -- in Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Parma and Youngstown -- are paying $8 to $10 an hour to about 250 workers canvassing neighborhoods every night for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.
Republicans hope to offset that Democratic edge with an unprecedented grass-roots effort to turn out voters for their party.
"We've reorganized our voter-turnout strategies in all of our swing counties based on the lessons we learned in the 2000 election," said Ohio Republican Party spokesman Jason Mauk.
A British newspaper's pro-Kerry effort has made it easier to mobilize Republican voters in one battleground county, he said.
Republicans in Clark County -- which went for Mr. Gore by a margin of 324 votes in 2000 -- are "especially fired up right now, thanks to the Guardian ... [which] tried recently to get British citizens to write letters to Clark County residents in an effort to influence their votes," Mr. Mauk said. "The move backfired and seems to have really energized the support in Clark for the president."
Republicans say they have more than 12,000 precinct leaders who will be responsible for turning out the vote in their communities.
"The level of organizations is far more refined than ever before, and we've had the advantage of relying on Ohioans to get this work done," Mr. Mauk said. "These are people who know their neighborhoods. They know what it takes to get out the vote in their precincts. We think that gives us an advantage."
By contrast, the Republican spokesman said, Democrats have had to bring organizers in from out of state, so there is an "automatic learning curve that has left them a few steps behind."