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Activists rally to get out voters

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Des Moines, Iowa — In the final hours of a bitterly divisive presidential campaign, opposing armies of activists are waging a vast ground war to ensure that the record numbers of Americans who are registered to vote actually turn up at the polling stations.

The battle is being fought in the courts, in churches, at union halls and door-to-door, as both partisan and non-partisan organizers look to reverse the apathetic turnouts of recent U.S. elections.

With this year's race expected to be as close as the nail-biter of 2000, Republican and Democratic strategists are pouring resources and people into key states.

On a raw, blustery morning this weekend, George P. Bush, nephew of U.S. President George W. Bush, was in an affluent suburb of Des Moines encouraging 60 Republican volunteers who had gathered in a parking lot for a door-knocking campaign.

The crowd was mostly from out of state and young — some not old enough to vote. George P. Bush reminded them that his uncle lost Iowa by 4,100 votes in 2000, equivalent to just two people per voting precinct.

Nearly 30 students from the Republican club at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale had taken a nine-hour bus trip from their own state, which the Democrats appear to have locked up.

"We know that Iowa is definitely a swing state," said 21-year-old pre-law student and club president John Teresi.

"We're hoping we can make a difference and put the President over the top here." Mr. Teresi said.

As the volunteers went door-to-door, evangelical pastors exhorted their congregations to make sure they vote — preferably for candidates who embrace traditional Christian values.

While the conservative Christians are officially non-partisan (their tax-exempt status depends on it), the President has courted them aggressively, and polls show they are overwhelmingly pro-Republican.

At the Kingsway Cathedral in Des Moines yesterday, Rev. David Brown showed an eight-minute video that featured prominent church leaders reminding the faithful what is at stake. The Christian Coalition of Iowa provided the videos, as well as voters' guides, to churches across the state.

In an interview before his service, Mr. Brown said that by some estimates, just 25 per cent of the evangelical community voted in the 2000 election. He said Christians have a duty to participate in order to defend the Judeo-Christian moral underpinnings of American society.

"We just simply look at the views of the candidates and the platforms of the party in the light of Scripture," he said.

Thanks in part to politically active evangelicals, Republicans in Iowa are cautiously optimistic that they can win the state's seven Electoral College votes.

But Democrats believe they can overwhelm the Republican base in battleground states, thanks to aggressive voter-registration drives and unaffiliated activist groups that are focusing on youth and minority voters, both considered to be Democratic constituencies.

In key states such as Iowa, Ohio and Michigan, the two parties have engaged in legal skirmishes over voting rules, with Democrats claiming Republicans are making it as difficult as possible for new voters to cast their ballots and Republicans arguing they are trying to prevent voter fraud.

Iowa saw a 140,000-strong increase in voter registration this year, and Democrats are counting on most of those new registrants — many of them under 25 — to support Mr. Kerry.

Karen Emmerson, head of the University of Iowa's Democratic Party club, organized a weekend blitz with hundreds of volunteers going floor-to-floor in the dorms and door-to-door in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The club was planning to hold a "midnight madness" event after the trick-or-treaters finished their rounds last night, going through the campus area to drop off campaign literature.

Ms. Emmerson, a political science and statistics major, said as many as 93 per cent of 18-.to 24-year-olds in Iowa City's Johnson County are registered. She said she is confident that a significant majority of those young voters are Democrats, and determined to see that they vote.

"Just a few votes per precinct can make a huge difference," she said.

Pollster John Zogby of Zogby International said he believes as many as 15 million more voters will cast ballots this year than did in 2000. During a briefing in Washington, Mr. Zogby said that about 5 per cent of voters remain undecided, a group that typically does not believe Mr. Bush deserves to be re-elected but has doubts about Mr. Kerry.

"If it's a good turnout, look for a Kerry victory," Mr. Zogby said. "If it's a lower turnout, it means the President has succeeded in raising questions about John Kerry's fitness."

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