With 12 days left before the election, millions of Americans have already cast their ballots — records are being set for early voting and absentee ballots in all of the battleground states and in many non-battleground states. Yet, it is no easier to identify a frontrunner now than it was last spring. Rarely in history has an American presidential contest remained this close for this long, and it is beginning to appear that, like 2000, 2004 may be a year when neither candidate opens up a clear lead at the close of the contest.

That’s got George W. Bush’s reelection campaign team running scared, as races that stay close to the end tend to break for the challenger. But John Kerry’s camp has had a hard time identifying themes in the post-debate period. For instance, it took the Democrat the better part of a week to figure out that the shortage of flu vaccine is precisely the sort of real-life crisis that illustrates the problems that result when the federal government adopts a hands-off approach to health care concerns.

The big movement seems to be occurring not in the presidential race but in contests for the Senate, where Republican overconfidence has created unexpected openings for the Democrats.

Here’s where the race stands right now:

READING THE POLLS: The polls are all over the place, reflecting the challenges that arise when the practitioners of an inexact science attempt to predict a contest that is too close to call. In recent days, polls have anticipated everything from a Bush landslide to a narrow Kerry win. The latest surveys from the Gallup organization put President Bush well ahead of Democrat John Kerry. But four years ago at this time, Gallup was also predicting a landslide win for the Republican who ended up losing by almost 600,000 votes nationally to Democrat Al Gore.

On the other end of the spectrum are John Zogby’s tracking polls, which have Kerry moving up in recent days to a point where he is now consistently tied with Bush. Zogby’s group goes out of its way to contact potential voters who are not always reached by other polling groups — Americans under 30, the urban and rural poor, new citizens — and the hope of Democrats is that his numbers offer a better sense of what the November 2 results will look like if turnout surges.

One of the most traditionally reliable surveys, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, has Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent each. That’s probably about right, as far as the national polling goes. But, remember, national polls are the cotton candy of presidential politics. You need a balanced diet of battleground state information to get a clear picture of what is going on.

BATTLEGROUND STATES: The big news of the week appears to be that Kerry appears to be opening up a small lead in Ohio. Three recent polls have him ahead by margins of 49-47 (WCPO-TV/Survey USA), 48-46 (University of Cincinnati) and 50-47 (ABC News). Only a FOX News survey still has Bush narrowly ahead. If Ohio breaks for Kerry, and every other states votes as it did in 2000, as is possible, the Democrat wins the presidency.

Kerry also appears to be in position to pick up another state that went for Bush in 2000: New Hampshire. The latest Suffolk University poll has the Democrat ahead there by 46-41, although some other polls have it closer.

Kerry’s prospects for pick-ups in other states that once seemed competitive have dimmed. He’s down 51-45 in Missouri (KSDK/SurveyUSA) and 52-45 in Nevada (KVBC-TV/SurveyUSA). Colorado could still be a prospect, depending on what poll you look at, although most surveys give Bush a reasonably comfortable lead. Intriguingly, Virginia and North Carolina remain relatively close in most surveys; a new WSLS-TV/SurveyUSA poll for Virginia has Bush ahead by only a 50-46 margin. A WBTV/SurveyUSA North Carolina poll has Bush with 50 to Kerry’s 47.

Are there states that went for Gore in 2000 and could go for Bush this year? Possibly. There’s still a lot of talk about New Jersey being in play, and Bush visited the state early in the week in hopes of causing a turn. But the latest polls still have Kerry ahead by margins varying from 1 to 10 points. Another Gore 2000 state, Oregon, remains competitive this year, with most surveys showing Kerry and Bush inside the margin of error. The same goes for Maine. In both Oregon and Maine, third-party candidates are drawing what could turn out to be significant support. Bush also has a shot in the Gore 2000 state of Iowa, which remains exceptionally close.

What of Florida? It’s still a mess. The polls say the state is a toss up — the latest Washington Post poll has the candidates tied 48-48. Turnout for early voting seems to be running strong in traditionally Democratic areas, such as the Tampa area and Palm Beach and Broward counties. But there are already complaints about the difficulty of voting in Jacksonville and other communities. Bottom line: Florida remains in flux and both candidates had better stock up on suntan lotion. They will be heading to the Sunshine State regularly between now and November 2.

Where else will they be? Watch the allocation of candidate time in the coming week. Both campaigns will have to start to get very serious about where they send their presidential and vice presidential nominees as states begin to lock in. With the race this close, neither candidate can afford to spend time in states that should have been secured log ago — if a poll shift forces Kerry has to go to New Jersey, he’s in trouble; if Bush has to go to North Carolina, Virginia or Colorado, it’s likely that he is finished. The sure bets are these: Kerry, who has opened a lead in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and who must win Iowa, will make repeated runs to the Upper Midwest in hopes of tying the region up; and, of course, he will camp out in Ohio and Florida. Bush will spend even more time in Ohio, which he must pull back into play. Bush knows that, if he can win can win both Ohio and Florida, a second term is almost certainly his. If he loses one of them, he’s headed back to Crawford.

GENDER GAP: One thing that all of the national and battleground-state polls agree on is this: Men prefer Bush, women prefer Kerry. That should be good news for Kerry. In recent election cycles, women have voted in somewhat higher numbers than men. The Democrats are working hard to make sure that the pattern holds, as they need women to turn out in disproportionate numbers — the latest New York Times national poll has male respondents backing Bush by a 53-40 margin, while women supported Kerry 49-41. Gloria Steinem and other prominent women are taking to the road to pump up enthusiasm for Kerry in battleground states; slogan: “It’s Up to the Women!” Republicans are dispatching Laura Bush, who polls better than anyone on either party’s ticket. Bush once promised her that he would never ask her to make a campaign speech. Strike that.

One woman who has made her choice is Winona LaDuke, a prominent campaigner for Native American and environmental causes. LaDuke issued a strong endorsement of Kerry this week. Four years ago, she was Ralph Nader’s running mate on the Green ticket.

BIG GUN: Kerry will be joined Monday for a Philadelphia rally by former President Bill Clinton. While 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore avoided being seen with then-President Clinton, Kerry will get at close to Clinton as he can. Clinton’s approval ratings are solid in polls from most of this year’s battleground states and his appeal remains particularly strong among the African-American voters whose turnout levels could determine the results in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and a number of other key states.

MEDIA BIAS: The media is giving George W. Bush a hard time. No, not the liberal media. Bush is taking it on the chin from conservative publications. Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, which has been harshly critical of the Bush administration’s military adventures abroad, will not be backing Bush. “Unfortunately,” the latest issue explains, “this election does not offer traditional conservatives an easy or natural choice and has left our editors as split as our readership.” The American Conservative is not alone. At least a dozen Republican-leaning newspapers that backed Bush in 2000 have refused to do so this year, including the Seattle Times; the Portland Oregonian; Boulder, Colorado’s Daily Camera; Columbia Missouri’s Daily Tribune; and Bradenton, Florida’s Daily Herald. The conservative Tampa Tribune, one of the highest-circulation papers in Florida, abandoned the GOP nominee with an announcement that, “We are unable to endorse President Bush for reelection because of his mishandling of the war in Iraq, his record deficit spending, his assault on open government and his failed promise to be a ‘united not a divider’ within the United States and the world.” So far, according to Editor & Publisher magazine, 45 daily newspapers with a circulation of 8.7 million are backing Kerry, while only 30 newspapers with a circulation of 3.3 million are backing Bush. The president says he does not read newspapers — not even the conservative ones. Now we know why.

SENATE SHIFTS: Could Democrats retake control of the Senate on November 2? It’s possible — not because Democrats have done so much right but, rather, because Republicans have done so much wrong. The big mistake? In several states, Republicans nominated loose-cannon candidates who have blown up. For instance, Oklahoma Republican nominee Tom Coburn has been hit by scandal after scandal; most recently, he was caught on tape ranting about “issue” of “rampant lesbianism in some of the schools of southeast Oklahoma.” In South Carolina, Republican nominee Jim DeMint stirred controversy by declaring his personal enthusiasm for banning not just gays and lesbians but unmarried moms from teaching. Now, in Oklahoma and South Carolina, both Republican-leaning states, polls show the Senate races are toss-ups.

But the most fascinating GOP crack-up has come in Kentucky, a state where the Senate race wasn’t supposed to be competitive this year. Republican U.S. Senator Jim Bunning refused to show up for a scheduled debate last week; he demanded that he be allowed to present his remarks from the Republican National Committee’s television studio in Washington. Bunning then used a Teleprompter to deliver his opening and closing statements. Bunning has also compared his Democratic challenger, Dr. Dan Mongiardo, with Saddam Hussein’s sons. And when the senator visited Paducah, Kentucky, he demanded extra police protection because he feared being attacked there by al-Qaeda. The Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest daily newspaper, asked in a recent editorial: “Is (Bunning), as he ages, just becoming a more concentrated version of himself: more arrogant, more prickly? Certainly that would be a normal occurrence. Or is his increasing belligerence an indication of something worse? Has Senator Bunning drifted into territory that indicates a serious health concern?” Both the Courier-Journal and the state’s second largest newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, have endorsed Mongiardo. “Fortunately,” wrote the Herald-Leader. “Democrat Dan Mongiardo is as in tune with what Kentucky needs as Bunning is out of touch.” Most polling shows the race getting closer. Mongiardo has momentum, although he still lacks the funds he needs. If national Democrats decide to shift attention to the contest, that could change. Best bet: Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair Jon Corzine will make a move. This is too attractive a prospect to pass up.

Where does this leave the competition for control of the Senate, where the current split is 51 Republicans versus 48 Democrats and 1 Independent (Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats)?

With five Democratic senators stepping down in the south, and with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle facing a tough reelection race in South Dakota, the party went into the 2004 competition at a distinct disadvantage. But Daschle is running even or better and Democrats now appear likely to hold several of the southern seats. At the same time, they will pick up a GOP seat in Illinois and could do the same in Colorado, Oklahoma and Alaska. If Kentucky comes into play, the prospect of a 50-50 split in the Senate, or even a 51-49 Democratic majority, will no longer seem so remote as it did just a few weeks ago.


John Nichols’ book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, “This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president.” Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, “The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton’s no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting).”

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.