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Will it come down to Wisconsin?

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are introduced Saturday at a campaign rally at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena in Ashwaubenon, Wis. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
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Just how important is Wisconsin in Tuesday’s election? John Kerry and George Bush gave their answer by campaigning in the state on Saturday and then planning to return Monday to hold rallies here in Milwaukee within three blocks of each other.

Why Wisconsin is just as crucial as Ohio and Florida comes down to the narrowness of Democrat Al Gore’s victory in 2000, a mere two-tenths of one percent of the total vote, and the fact that a Bush win here could help offset a loss in Ohio, where he leads by just two points, according to the latest MSNBC-Knight Ridder poll.

To get a feel for how spiritually and emotionally involving the battle has gotten here, start at the 8 o’clock Mass Sunday morning at Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

In his homily, Archbishop Timothy Dolan urged members of his congregation to “not check our moral principles at the door” when they vote on Tuesday. There are some 730,000 Catholics in Dolan’s archdiocese, which spreads across 10 counties, a rich trove of votes.

The “paramount civil rights issue of our time” is the protection of life “from conception to natural death,” Dolan told the congregation of about 300.

Archbishop cites 'culture of life'
He said the protection of life is not only part of Catholic doctrine, but at the heart of the Declaration of Independence itself when it speaks of life as one of the “unalienable rights” given by God.

Dolan noted that St. Francis of Assisi genuflected before a pregnant woman to show his reverence for the life within her. The church exalted “a culture of life,” he said.

As he ended, a few people in the congregation burst into loud applause, a rare reaction to a Sunday homily.

When the congregation emerged from the cathedral after Mass to walk to their cars, they found fliers tucked under their windshield wipers from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, saying Bush will “appoint pro-life judges” and blasting Kerry for voting against the ban on partial-birth abortion, against a ban on taxpayer funding of abortion, and against the Defense of Marriage Act.

The flier used the same phrase Dolan did, “culture of life,” which is a phrase Bush has used on the campaign trail and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops uses to explain its commitment to what it callsthe long and difficult task of reversing the Supreme Court's abortion decisions.”

A pause for the Packers
Political activity in the state on this Sunday paused for a few hours to watch the Green Bay Packers defeat the Washington Redskins, then at precisely 3:20 pm on the second floor of the Bush-Cheney campaign office in a storefront on Greenfield Avenue in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb, a volunteer lieutenant announced, “Packers game is over” and single mother Kathryn Graham, college student Nicole Zimmerman and 18 other volunteers picked up their phones and started dialing numbers on their call sheets.

Vicky Ostry, a Bush volunteers, helps coordinate the voter contact effort in West Allis, WisconsinTom Curry

Graham said about half the time she was getting answering machines, onto which she read the Bush message, including the argument that “we simply cannot trust John Kerry because of his constant flip-flopping on the issues most important to our country.”

Vicky Ostry, a volunteer leader at the West Allis office, played traffic cop and crisis manager as 50 volunteers came in to get training as poll watchers for Election Day and trekked out to do neighborhood “lit drops,” handing out Bush brochures at targeted homes in western Milwaukee County.

“There are so many people who are so fired up and I’m not sure what they are fired up by, whether it is the president’s message, whether it’s the voter fraud that’s perceived,” Ostry said. “The base is fired up, more than in the 20 years I’ve lived here.”

Asked what her most important issue is, Ostry said, “My first eliminator for any candidate is the pro-life issue. If they’re not pro-life, I wouldn’t be here.”

Bush volunteer Ken Kegley, a boiler operator at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee, has taken vacation days to work full-time on the campaign in the home stretch.

Voter with a short fuse
Late Sunday afternoon, Kegley headed out to a neighborhood in West Allis to ring doorbells and make the pitch for Bush. At one house on 61st Street, he encountered a woman with a short fuse. Apparently she had had just about enough of being polled, prodded, phoned and motivated. “I am not going to tell you who I’m voting for!” she scolded him.

Despite the tedious work of going door to door, Kegley remained upbeat. The big motivating factor for him, he said, is “my grandchildren and their grandchildren. We need President Bush to stay in because I’m afraid if Kerry gets in, the terrorists are going to think they’ve got a one-way right into the United States and they can walk all over us.”

He also mentioned Bush’s stands on limiting stem cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage. “If Kerry gets in, all that stuff is going to change and go out the window,” Kegley said.

His plans for Election Day: work from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. as a runner, bringing information from polling places on turnout back to the Bush-Cheney office in West Allis so that laggards can be called at home.

Tom Curry

One of Kegley’s co-workers, Ray Allen, a business student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, spent part of his Sunday afternoon planning Election Day transportation for poll watchers. 

“I believe we should be in Iraq and I believe that the country is a lot safer with Bush in office,” Allen said.

As for the effect on college students of Democratic charges that Bush will revive the draft, Allen said, “Most people at my school understand that the draft will not happen. The president can’t just automatically bring back the draft. We’re engineers — we’re very fact-based in our school.”

Helping drive the get-out-the-vote effort to defeat Bush is Phil Walzak, state director for America Coming Together (ACT), the anti-Bush group funded in part by George Soros that is trying to boost turnout by sporadic voters.

A superior ground game?
“With our ground game, which many observers consider to be perhaps the largest in the history of Wisconsin politics, the Republican program is not going to be able to stand up to ours,” said Walzak Sunday night.

Phil Walzak of America Coming Together is helping drive anti-Bush turnout in Wisconsin.Tom Curry

His more than 100 paid staffers, plus a special Election Day complement of 2,000, aim to drive thousands of extra anti-Bush people to vote. “We know the voters are there; we just need to find new ways to turn them out,” he said.

ACT has been canvassing voters for the past five months, focusing on issues such as health insurance, job creation and Iraq. One question both for ACT and for the Bush campaign: Have voters already had more than enough? Will “canvass fatigue” push efforts in the final hours beyond the point of diminishing returns?

A vital target for ACT and the Democrats: the 127,000 black voters in Milwaukee. Black voters in Milwaukee have traditionally turned out in smaller numbers than other Democratic constituencies.

The Democratic House nominee in Milwaukee, virtually assured of victory next Tuesday, Gwen Moore, a black state legislator, might help inspire increased black turnout, Walzak said.

But some disenchantment remains in the black electorate over the defeat of mayoral candidate Marvin Pratt last April. Pratt was seeking to become the city's first elected black mayor. One mission for Walzak and Democrats is making sure that the African-American community does not feel as though voting is pointless.

Wisconsin’s Republican Party continues to challenge the validity of more than 5,000 addresses of people registered to vote in Milwaukee, a move Democrats called an attempt at voter intimidation.

Formula for victory
To win Wisconsin, Kerry must have a robust turnout in Milwaukee County. In 2000, Milwaukee County accounted for 17 percent of the total statewide votes cast. Gore amassed 58 percent of the county’s vote, with a margin of more than 88,000.

Another Democratic bastion is the state’s second biggest county in terms of votes cast, Dane County, home to left-leaning Madison and the University of Wisconsin, where Gore’s margin was more than 66,000.

Republican strongholds include suburban Waukesha County, the state’s third biggest, where Bush won nearly two-thirds of the vote last time, and Brown County, which includes Green Bay, where Bush spoke at a rally Saturday. He carried the county with 50 percent of the vote four years ago.