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Battle for Ohio goes down to the wire

With 20 electoral votes, Ohio may be the crucial state in Decision 2004.  No Republican has won without it since 1900, and only two Democrats. NBC's Ron Allen reports from Columbus.

The candidates visit Ohio so often, some people joke, maybe they're running for governor.

The key issue for Sen. John Kerry — according to polls and swing voters tracked by NBC News — is the economy.

"You want to get up every day and look forward to going to work," says voter Derrick Randon.

Ohio has lost 200,000 jobs under President Bush but has seen some gains in recent months.

Bush's strength — a promise to keep America safe.

Voters are so saturated with TV ads, direct mail and volunteers that few remain undecided. But the race is neck and neck.

Adding to the political tension is a staggering number of newly registered voters, some 800,000, according to state officials, leading both parties to launch unprecedented efforts to protect their voters at the polls.

More new voters are Democrats, but Republicans accuse them of old-fashioned registration fraud — padding the rolls with fake names. The evidence — thousands of letters the GOP mailed to new voters that could not be delivered. So the GOP will send thousands of "challengers," like Chuck Mifsud, to the polls on Election Day. They will target heavily Democratic areas and question voters about their age and residency.

"I think the reports of voter fraud are enough to make anyone want to make sure that we have fair elections," says Mifsud.

Democrats charge the real goal is to suppress the vote by causing long and frustrating lines. So their poll monitors will watch the Republicans.

"They realize the impact here is to intimidate minority voters, and that's not going to happen," says Democratic Party spokesman Myron Marlin.

Another concern, is that 70 percent of Ohio's voters — a higher percentage than any other battleground state — will use punch card ballots, the ones that made hanging chads famous in 2000.

"I'm not at all confident the process will work here," says Dan Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University. "Ohio is ground zero for election problems in 2004."

The race is so close that Ohio's major newspapers split their endorsements. The largest paper abstained, with its editors divided.

All this is happening in a bellwether state so crucial that no Republican and just two Democrats have won the White House since 1900 without winning Ohio.