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US political divide mirrored in Iowa

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.   Continued...

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