John Kerry should be reaping votes in the Upper Midwest as easily as a farmer harvesting a bumper crop on the best day of Indian Summer. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa rejected George W. Bush’s candidacy in 2000, just as they have every GOP presidential contender since 1988. Most of the complaints about the Bush Administration that are heard across the United States go double for the trio of battleground states that may very well determine whether Kerry or Bush prevails on November 2. The economic downturn during Bush’s first term hit the Upper Midwest hard, with states losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and long-suffering farmers finding it increasingly difficult to get a fair price for their goods. Concerns about Bush’s war in Iraq are mounting across a region that has a long history of discomfort with military adventurism, and that is starting to see too many caskets returning to too many small towns. And, if all this wasn’t enough, Kerry’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee claim to be working harder than ever to win the rural counties that are the swing regions of the swing states.

But Kerry is running into trouble in the Upper Midwest. No one is quite sure where he stands on the war. When he talks about wanting to protect American jobs, he does so with all the enthusiasm of the free trader he has always been. His campaign has failed to make effective use of John Edwards, whose performance in the primaries suggested that he should be popular in areas where Kerry isn’t. And there’s a sense that the Kerry campaign is playing defense when it needs to be mounting a more aggressive challenge to a powerful and, in many areas, personally popular President.

To be sure, most of these concerns are echoed far beyond the cafes, union halls and farm cooperatives of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. But there are particular problems in the Upper Midwest that have made this a difficult season for Democrats. Kerry’s hunt-club style has been all wrong for a region that likes its Democratic politics served up with a populist edge. And, even where grassroots activists are ready to save Kerry from himself, they complain that they cannot get the support they need from a campaign that still has a hard time understanding the politics of rural America.

That’s caused frustration in places like Wabasha, Minnesota. “We can’t get any yard signs,” complains Sarah Farkas. “When we contacted the Kerry campaign and said we needed more yard signs, they said they didn’t print enough. We were told they thought it was more important to be on television than to spend money on yard signs.”

Yard signs are not much discussed in reviews of campaign arsenals. It’s easier to chart media buys from Washington than to measure the extent to which folks are willing to post Kerry-Edwards signs in their front yards. But in rural stretches of the Upper Midwest, yard-sign wars are the equivalent of the televised air wars that are so often the focus of reports on the campaign. “Out here, if you don’t have yard signs up well before the election, people start to wonder how serious your campaign is,” says Elfi Baltes, who is working with Farkas to promote Kerry in Wabasha. “It’s the way we show we’re serious about competing for these counties. When people don’t see the yard signs, they start to worry about how the campaign is going.” Farkas is too polite to describe the Kerry campaign as boneheaded. She simply says, in her “Minnesota nice” voice, “The Kerry campaign keeps saying how important rural Minnesota is, but I’m not sure they get it. And I’m afraid the Bush people do–they’ve got signs everywhere. I’m worried.”

The concerns of the women in Wabasha are echoed everywhere across the Upper Midwest, but they are heard loudest in the rural counties, where Kerry will win or lose the region. “In terms of a coordinated rural outreach effort, the Kerry campaign is behind the curve,” says Niel Ritchie, executive director of the League of Rural Voters. That’s a very dangerous place to be. Kerry aides quietly admit they have a hard time plotting a realistic course that gets them to the White House without a strong showing in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, whose combined total of electoral votes–twenty-seven–equals the electoral votes of Florida. Yet polls generally show that all three states are competitive, with Kerry a bit ahead in Minnesota, about even in Iowa and a bit behind in Wisconsin–a state some pundits have slipped into the “Leans Bush” category.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Kerry went into this campaign with some genuine advantages in the Upper Midwest, including the fact that people in the region tend to prefer that their Presidents be Democrats. While rural America as a whole has been trending toward the GOP in the past three election cycles–Bush beat Al Gore by twenty-two points in rural America in 2000, and Democrats were badly battered there in 2002–the Mississippi River counties in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota have remained relatively solid for the party of Roosevelt and Truman. On those 2000 maps that showed vast stretches of the heartland colored red for Bush, for the most part these Mississippi Riverfront regions remained blue for Gore. This break in pattern was credited by Democrats with providing Gore’s narrow margins of victory in Iowa (where he won by 4,144 votes), Wisconsin (5,708 votes) and Minnesota (58,607 votes). While the role that these river counties played in the 2000 contest was little noted outside the region at the time, it has become something of a national obsession this year. The Bush and Kerry campaigns, the Democratic and Republican national committees and their surrogates have lavished attention on the region. Communities like Lancaster, Wisconsin, population 4,070, which rarely saw presidential candidates in the past, can boast of having welcomed both contenders this year.

The intense attention reflects a shift in the political dynamic of a year when Democrats thought they had the upper hand. As the 2004 campaign got started, there was much hopeful talk about augmenting the party’s traditional strength with votes from the burgeoning Latino population in rural regions where the demographics are rapidly shifting. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of residents of all three states who claim Hispanic heritage skyrocketed–from 53,884 to 143,382 in Minnesota alone. Many live in rural areas, where they’ve found jobs in agriculture-related industries. Because Latinos in the Upper Midwest have historically leaned Democratic, these demographic shifts were seen as advantageous news for Kerry. And the campaign seemed poised to capitalize on this and other opportunities.

After securing the Democratic nomination, the Kerry campaign made some smart moves. The selection of Edwards represented a bow to the party’s rural base. The same goes for the naming of John Norris, a veteran Iowa strategist, as the national campaign’s field director. Norris and other Democratic aides who know their way around the region quickly got the candidate on a schedule that has had him showing up several times each week in the Upper Midwest. Kerry’s campaign has been pumping out good position papers about farm policy, rural transportation, education and healthcare that pinpoint the ways in which the Bush Administration has failed the region. And Kerry’s best surrogate, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–who says, “The potential is there this year, as never before, for rural America to determine the outcome of this election”–is traveling the region with a populist “Bush won’t, Kerry will” rap on issues of concern to small-town voters.

At the same time, developments in what should be the big issues of this campaign tended to favor Kerry–particularly with regard to the war in Iraq. The Bush Administration has relied heavily on National Guard units from the Upper Midwest to maintain the occupation, and that has not been popular. “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve heard people complaining about the war. There’s a lot of frustration out there, because when someone from a small town is killed in Iraq, it hits people hard,” says Amanda Ballantyne, an Iowa native who is organizing rural voter registration and turnout initiatives. “Everybody knows everybody, so they feel the loss. And they ask questions: How did we get into this mess? Why are we still there?”

There’s an almost equal level of frustration with the economy. The deindustrialization of the Upper Midwest, driven by Bush-backed trade and tax policies that are seen as having encouraged the shuttering of midsized factories and small machine shops across the region, has hit hardest in rural communities. “When a factory shuts in one of these towns, you can’t just walk down the street and get a job someplace else. Most of these towns only have one or two employers. When they’re gone, you’ve got to go thirty, forty miles to find something else,” says Arlene Siss, chair of the Grant County Democratic Party in southwest Wisconsin. “A lot of times, the ‘something else’ in that next town is laying off as well.”

All this added up to trouble for Bush in the late spring and early summer. A June poll commissioned by the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies found that Bush was leading Kerry by only nine points, 51-42, in the rural portions of the seventeen states then considered to be presidential election battlegrounds. That made Kerry’s position two points better than Gore’s at the close of the 2000 race, and internal surveys suggested Kerry was doing even better in the rural areas of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Kerry operatives were enthusiastically talking up the notion that their man might restore the glory days of the 1980s and early ’90s for the Democratic Party in the Upper Midwest, when its candidates were surging in the rural vote in key regions, enabling populist Democrats like Iowa’s Harkin, Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold to win Senate seats from Republicans. “This year, rural voters are dissatisfied with George Bush, so these are new votes for Kerry and the Democratic Party,” Norris announced at a gathering of the party’s Rural Caucus.

This fall, however, after an ugly August that saw more media attention paid to Kerry’s Swift Boat service in Vietnam than to his stands on trade policy and rural healthcare, Kerry backers are not nearly so confident. In addition to Kerry’s lack of clarity on the war and his inability to craft a compelling message on economic issues, his style on the stump has proven ineffective and his campaign has failed to figure out how to connect with rural voters. Too often, Kerry and his aides seem to be using the region and its residents as a backdrop for photo opportunities. His “events” are frequently small and often require a ticket to gain entry. When Kerry passed through Wisconsin’s Grant County in July, his aides told local Democrats not to promote his stop in the county seat too aggressively. “They said they didn’t want too big a crowd because they might attract protesters,” recalls Arlene Siss. “It was just ridiculous. They spent so much time worrying about making everything look right that they missed the chance to reach a lot more people than they did.”

When Bush passed through Lancaster and other communities in southwest Wisconsin in early May, he was greeted by large crowds that had been drawn out by an exceptionally aggressive advance operation that does not hesitate to suggest shuttering local schools so students can meet the President. Bush, who delights in stump campaigning in small towns, gave quick speeches and then waded into the crowds, tossing around nicknames, posing for snapshots and generally enjoying himself. Some of the pictures of the President campaigning in Lancaster were so compelling that they ended up on the front of literature being distributed throughout the state. Kerry’s stop in Lancaster a few weeks later, by comparison, was a lifeless affair. He gave no speech. He just walked along a rope line for a few minutes, shook some hands and then hopped back on the bus.

Even Kerry’s “impromptu stops” are choreographed so precisely that the spontaneity is squeezed out of them. Perhaps worst of all, Kerry seems to be trying too hard. Almost weekly, he is photographed shooting a gun, in an attempt to counter the concerns of rural male voters about past Democratic support for gun control. But images of Kerry shooting skeet in a button-down shirt do about as much for his man-of-the-people image as those pictures of him windsurfing off Nantucket. According to Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon, “People see Kerry as a big-city Northeastern senator who has no clue about rural voters.” McKinnon has told reporters that in focus-group sessions the Bush campaign organized, “We asked voters, ‘How many of you can imagine George Bush filling up his own car at the gas station?’ Half the respondents said they could see that happening. We asked them the same about Kerry. Not a single person thought they could see John Kerry filling up his car.”

The selection of the congenial, “born in a small town” Edwards as Kerry’s running mate was supposed to correct for Kerry’s weaknesses in the “filling up his car” department. But Edwards has seemed constrained ever since joining the ticket; his mix of populist concern about the growing gap between “two Americas” and optimism about Democrats’ ability to narrow that gap, which played so well in rural areas during the primary season, has been muted. And his campaigning in rural areas since the convention has often felt as stilted as Kerry’s. Over the Labor Day weekend, for instance, he was appearing at small, front-porch photo-op events in Wisconsin rather than making the traditional circuit of union parades and picnics, where he could have roused the faithful. Bush did not make the same mistake. He swept into the state at the same time for a rally of 15,000 cheering backers at Wisconsin’s State Fair Park.

Along with making good use of their candidate, the Bush campaign is covering its bases by stirring up social issues that play well for Republicans in rural areas. Bush’s endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was calculated to stir concern about the Democrats among voters who might otherwise be drawn to Kerry. And the scheme may well succeed; in Missouri in August, a ballot proposal to amend the state Constitution to bar marriages between gay and lesbian couples won 71-29 statewide, but in some rural counties it secured the backing of close to 90 percent of voters. No such referendums are on the ballot in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa, but the issue is being worked hard as part of a Karl Rove-devised campaign to increase turnout among evangelical Christians. So, too, with the abortion issue, which is a big deal in Mississippi River counties with large socially conservative Catholic and Lutheran populations.

So is Kerry finished in the Upper Midwest? Not necessarily. But he doesn’t have much time. Democrats across the region have plenty of advice, starting with “Let loose.” “He should just get rid of the prepared speeches and the prepared answers and speak from the heart,” says Sarah Farkas. “He shouldn’t stop and think about how to answer every little question. He should just answer directly, bluntly.” Asks Elfi Baltes, “Why is Kerry not listing the terrible things that Bush has done in Iraq, the terrible mistakes this Administration has made?” Her friend Claire Hall, who lives on a farm outside Wabasha, adds, “People are very discouraged about the war. There are a lot of military families out here. There’s a lot of National Guard families. People don’t know when their husbands and sons and wives and sisters are coming home. They’re worried sick. They want to hear Kerry talk about the war a lot more.” Organizer Amanda Ballantyne says people need to hear more economic populism in Kerry’s speeches. “I feel like people are desperate to hear Kerry talking about taking their side–on farm issues, manufacturing issues, yes, but just in general. People just want to be thrown a bone–so they’re confident that their issues will be addressed. I don’t think it takes that much, but it’s more than they’ve gotten from Kerry so far.”

Thirty miles east of St. Paul, where the outer-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities give way to rolling farm fields, a huge homemade sign with blue block letters on a white background shouts Support Our President Bush. Scrawled across the President’s name in equally large red letters is the word “Liar.” The defaced sign neatly sums up the intensity of the race to win the votes of rural regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. When I mentioned the defaced Bush sign to a Democratic activist in northern Wisconsin, however, she sighed and said, “Just because they wrote ‘Liar’ on a Bush sign doesn’t mean they’ll vote for Kerry. That’s the problem we’ve got.” Over at the Book Cliffs used bookstore in Wabasha, Nancy Falkum says, “There are still a lot of people who are uncomfortable with Bush, either because of the war or the economy, but who aren’t comfortable with Kerry either.” She adds,”We were talking about it at the coffee shop the other morning and some woman said, almost resigned, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just vote for Bush.’ Someone else said, ‘You can’t do that.’ She asked, ‘Why not?’ I guess Kerry’s got to answer that question.”