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THE ARMCHAIR STRATEGIST | DAN PAYNE

Who will win? Kerry by a hair

UNDECIDED voters must finally decide. But if they stop at supermarket on way to polls, forget about them voting. They'll never get past "paper or plastic?"

Analysis paralysis. What's underlying force? Economy? Iraq war? Culture war?

Which group is key -- Catholics? Evangelicals? Jews? What about women? Which ones? Married women, single women, divorced women, widows, working women, single mothers, security moms, women in poverty, or women of certain age? (How come men are just "men?")

Schilling vs. The Boss. Curt Schilling shilled for George Bush on "Good Morning America" as Bruce Springsteen draws huge crowds for Kerry in Wisconsin and Ohio. Advantage, Kerry.

Rule of Three. Winner must carry two of these three states, Florida (27 electoral votes), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21). LA Times poll: Bush up by 8 points in Florida, Kerry up 6 in Ohio, Pennsylvania dead even. Some pollsters say margins are too big. Not me.

Good news. Gallup poll says first-time voters (12 percent of voters) prefer Kerry to Bush, 50-35 percent.

Bad news. In Ohio, Washington Post reports, "Republicans have already filed 35,000 challenges to voters' eligibility and are preparing to send recruits into 8,000 polling places next Tuesday." Their target: hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters.

2004-model Katherine Harris. Meet Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio secretary of state. Conservative, African-American Republican. Co-chair, Bush Ohio campaign. Democrats say he's already suppressing participation by poor and minorities.

Bigger pools. In Ohio's reliably Democratic areas -- mostly low-income and minority neighborhoods -- new registrations jumped by 250 percent.

In Republican areas -- mainly mansions and Mercedes -- new registrations up only 25 percent. Same in Florida; in Democratic strongholds, registration is up 60 percent vs. only 12 percent gain in GOP areas.

Senate seats. Democrats need to pick up three seats, net, to control US Senate. Sure thing is Illinois, Barack Obama. Democratic takeover possible in Oklahoma (!), Colorado, and Alaska -- Lisa "Who's Your Daddy" Murkowski (R) was appointed to Senate by governor, her father.

In Kentucky, boyhood hero of mine, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning (R) is vulnerable after showing signs of dementia. GOP will take both Carolinas from Democrats. Too close to call in Florida (D) and South Dakota, where Dem Tom Daschle spending $19 million (!) to hold on. Democrats need breaks in North Carolina (D) and Pennsylvania (R). Forecast: Senate stays Republican, barely. If Kerry wins, importance of his Senate seat could be HUGE.

Wolf in bear's clothing. Bush "Wolves" TV spot not about neocon Paul Wolfowitz and pals. It's cheesy knock-off of 1984 Reagan "Bear" spot. Bush ad shows wolf pack prowling for prey. Female announcer says Kerry and liberals in Congress weakened our defenses. "And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

Two TV spots capture two sides of Bush. Spot by Progress for America Voter Fund features Ohio teenager whose mother was killed in World Trade Center attack. She says, Bush is "the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe." Bush hugs her.

MoveOn TV spot shows Bush in tuxedo getting laughs at press dinner with slideshow of him looking for WMD under White House furniture. Teenage girl says, "My brother died in Baghdad. I watched President Bush make a joke, looking around for weapons of mass destruction. My brother died looking for weapons of mass destruction."

This explains a lot. Nonpartisan, academic poll found 72 percent of Bush supporters still believe Iraq had WMD. 75 percent think Iraq gave substantial support to Al Qaeda. Some 63 percent believe evidence of this support has been found. Should US have gone to war if our intelligence concluded Iraq was not making WMD or supporting Al Qaeda? 58 percent said no.

Bad numbers from Iraq. 380 tons of explosives disappear. 49 freshly trained Iraqi National Guard recruits executed by insurgents. 1,111 US troops dead. $75 billion more for war will be requested by Bush, on top of $215 billion already spent.

Vinatieri effect. Pro-Kerry Election Day efforts by various organizations said to be worth field goal, three points.

Loser's election night euphemisms: "It's still early." (Translation: We lost.) "It's going to be a long night." (I need a drink) "We haven't seen some key places." (Hand me that vodka.)

How close is it? Bush and Kerry both in New Hampshire this weekend. Electoral votes: 4.

Prediction: Kerry catches inside straight. Beats Bush by 6-10 electoral votes. Would make Kerry third senator ever elected president and first since John F. Kennedy.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based Democratic media consultant who has worked in John Kerry's Senate campaigns in the past but is not affiliated with his presidential campaign. He does presidential campaign analysis for NPR, and his column appears regularly in the Globe.

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