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US political divide mirrored in Iowa

Page 3 of 3 -- Technically an independent group but one that acts as a shadow version of the Democratic Party's operation, ACT has been targeting ''marginal voters" -- registered but with spotty voting history -- said ACT director for Iowa, Jeff Link, who knows this drill. He was Gore's Iowa state director in 2000 and managed Harkin's campaign two years ago.

Like their Democratic counterparts, ACT canvassers visit homes of registered Democrats, but also independents who live in precincts with ''Democratic performance of 52 percent or higher," Link said. They sound out voters on issues of concern and whether they will fill out a request for an absentee ballot. The answers are entered on hand-held computers that transmit the information electronically to a central database.

To date, the Democratic/ ACT efforts seem effective. A Globe survey of auditors in 18 counties indicates that requests for absentee ballots are arriving in record numbers. Several officials said they were having trouble keeping up with the volume, and one described the phenomenon as ''crazy."

In many small, rural counties, officials said they did not keep a tally by party affiliation of those seeking ballots, which will be mailed out starting Thursday. But in six counties that did and which, when combined, have roughly equal party registration, the numbers tilt heavily Democratic -- 25,631 to 7,470.

Republicans do not concede the absentee vote to Democrats, but they do not pursue the early ballots with the same intensity.

''There's a different philosophy in approach," said Dave Roederer, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Iowa. ''We do the same thing but not with the same number out walking, and we target only what we consider infrequent voters. Democrats go for those as well, but they also go after all voters. On election day, Republicans historically turn out in higher percentages."

In early summer, the Republicans began a door-to-door campaign, identified receptive voters, and mailed them forms to request absentee ballots. That was followed up with ''robo-calls," featuring the voice of Bush asking recipients to fill out their ballots, sign them, and mail them in.

Nationally, the Republican emphasis has been on its so-called ''72-hour program," a monthslong organizing effort designed to boost GOP turnout through ramped up voter contact in the last days of campaigns, when the party often saw itself losing ground in close races to Democrats who were aided by strong urban organizations and labor unions.

A major force in Iowa is a large, politically influential bloc of conservative Christians, who in 1988 propelled Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson to a second-place finish in the state's Republican presidential caucuses. Nationwide, a Republican priority is to mobilize several million evangelicals who did not vote four years ago.

Link of ACT said there have been few visible signs of evangelical organizing, although he assumes it is happening.

''I think they're kind of organizing themselves," Roederer said. ''It's fair to say the evangelicals are very much involved in the election process. I can't say they're involved in the campaign."

More visible are the foot soldiers, the volunteers from Iowa's 99 counties, where the party committees labor with little recognition. As loyalty to parties has waned, these are the true believers -- farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, and auto workers -- who make the phone calls to voters and make chicken soup or chili for the get-out-the-vote rally.

There are thousands of them, like Rusty Harder, a businessman and Republican chairman in Story County, north of Des Moines. He knows the race could be close again, so the local phone-banking has picked up. ''We thought we were going to win here in 2000 but didn't," he said of both his county and Iowa going narrowly for Gore. ''People are very serious about it. They are making sure the president doesn't miss reelection," Harder said.

Two dozen activists gathered one night last week in a drab storefront on a side street in tiny Toledo, 60 miles northeast of Des Moines, to plan a rally, phone banks, and a Tama County Democrats presence at the upcoming Toledo Heritage Days parade and pork dinner.

In Tama County, extra effort could make the difference. Four years ago, Gore carried the county by 11 votes out of 8,315 cast.

Attorney Allan Richards, disillusioned with party leaders, quit as Tama County chairman after the last election. But his disdain for Bush and his policies has brought him back. ''I just can't watch him. Ever since he was elected," Richards said, gesturing sharply, as if turning off a television set or changing the channel.

That's Iowa politics, with an edge.

''After all these years, it's almost like there's an obligation in Iowa to be involved because we make the first choice in the [presidential] caucuses," Schmidt said. ''Politics in Iowa, it's like corn. It's all around you." 

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