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."