FORT MYERS, Fla. — President Bush and Sen. John Kerry move into the final 10 days of their presidential contest in agreement that the race has now come down to just 11 states and have laid out plans for a barrage of visits and television advertisements in Florida, one of their final battlegrounds.
Aides to Bush and Kerry, confronting a series of polls showing the race deadlocked, said the candidates would spend virtually all their time — and most of their remaining advertising budgets — in those states, starting in Florida but extending as far west as New Mexico and as far north as New Hampshire.
Over the past few weeks, both sides have quietly reassigned staff out of states that once appeared competitive to states like Iowa, which Al Gore won in 2000, and Colorado, a state Bush won last time, as they have moved to adjust to new information and polling data.
Fittingly enough for this year, five of the states were won by President Bush in 2000 and six by Gore, the Democratic candidate. And at least seven of the 11 states are now considered within the margin of error in nightly polls being conducted by the campaigns, aides said.
"Where we are is where we ended in 2000: with a limited number of states that are very, very close," said Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to Bush. "And the good news for us is more of those states are Gore states than Bush states."
Tad Devine, a senior Kerry adviser, disputed that assessment, noting that Bush was struggling in two states that were the bedrock of his election in 2000, Ohio and Florida. "We're in enough states to win a clear and convincing victory in the Electoral College," Devine said.
Of the 11 states on this final battleground, representing 135 of the 538 electoral votes, Bush won Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Ohio in 2000. Of those, analysts and aides to both campaigns assert that Kerry has the best chance of winning New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida.
The Gore states in play are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Of those, analysts and aides said Bush has the best chance of winning Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico. A sudden surge by Bush in Michigan, a state that Kerry thought he had put away, caught both sides by surprise, and both men scheduled last-minute trips there for next week.
All but Nevada and Colorado were described by both sides as being effectively tied.
In a reflection of the rapidly changing landscape, Kerry's campaign has reassigned campaign workers once stationed in Missouri and Arizona — two states that have slipped off the Democratic wish list — to Iowa and New Mexico, which Gore won in 2000, and Nevada, which Bush won. Bush has moved his staff out of Washington state, a Gore state that Bush had hoped to win, and scattered them to these 11 states, campaign officials said.
This geographical repositioning comes as Bush and Kerry have sharpened rather than blurred their differences as the race comes to a close, staking out vastly different positions on tax cuts, health care, Social Security and America's role in the world.
More than anything, Bush's aides say, his central focus will be what they have always seen as his strongest suit: the war on terrorism. His advisers said they would try to command the agenda in the remaining days with an intense and grisly procession of television advertisements and attacks by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the issue.
The president is planning to conclude his campaign with an advertisement in which Bush, recounting the trauma of the nation these past three years, makes a personal appeal to be returned to the White House.
Bush returned to the theme of terrorism during a campaign stop in Fort Myers on Saturday. And on television stations here this week, it was all terror all the time: images of the smoldering World Trade Center and Republican warnings that Kerry would be weak in the face of terrorist threats.
"We will basically be talking about who will win the war on terror, who will make America safer and who will lead the effort to reform our government," said Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser.
The emphasis on terror at this late date is part of a calculated appeal to some women voters, who tend to be among the late deciders in a campaign, and among whom Kerry has had difficulty building the kind of support Democrats typically have.
Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to Kerry, said Bush had been "reduced to a one-note-Johnny" campaign. He said Kerry would respond by challenging Bush's management of the war in Iraq, promising a new direction for the country to put a new emphasis on solving its domestic problems.
"John Kerry has a fundamental argument that we need a president who can defend the country and fight for the middle class," Shrum said. "Bush can only talk to one half of that equation."
The dynamics of this contest are now varying state by state, though the fact that 39 states are now considered firmly behind Kerry or Bush has made the challenge faced by both campaigns at least somewhat less sprawling.
In Ohio, for example, aides to the two men said the outcome was likely to be driven by concerns about the economy and jobs. In Wisconsin, Kerry's campaign is attacking Bush on milk prices, while in Pennsylvania, Bush has sought to undercut Kerry by emphasizing Bush's opposition to abortion and gay marriage in an effort to appeal to the state's sizable Roman Catholic vote.
But in places like Florida — arguably the most competitive of the 11 — minds seem so made up that the outcome is almost surely going to be a function of turnout and voter registration. And for all the talk of speeches, issues and conflicting perceptions of these two men, the power of get-out-the-vote operations that the two sides have spent two years putting together may well prove to be the single most important factor in determining who is the next president.
"Pennsylvania remains a tight race with Kerry having a slight edge, but it's just down to turnout now," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College.
Eric Rademacher, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, said, "Our most recent polls show a dead heat," and he added that for all of the advertising money, campaign appearances and attention poured into Ohio this year, "it will still come down to ground-force execution."
"I don't think there is anything the candidates can do at this point to try to change minds," Rademacher said. Even the arrival of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California in Ohio next week on behalf of Bush may have little effect, he said, because "we've passed the level of saturation."
Kerry's senior aides said that Democrats in states like this were showing motivation and interest unlike any that they had seen before, and that if anything, a procession of polls that show the race as deadlocked has fed that sense.
"People waking up in these battleground states and the media telling them that the race is neck-and-neck — that's the greatest motivator of all," said Michael Whouley, a longtime friend of Kerry and a seasoned operative who is working as a senior strategist at the Democratic National Committee.
Dowd argued that support for Bush among Republicans would counter what he acknowledged was intense animosity toward Bush among Democrats, a remnant of the disputed 2000 election.
"You should start seeing some movement next week because people are trying to make up their mind," Dowd said. "But a big part of this is who turns out. Are Democrats more motivated than Republicans on Election Day?"
The two candidates began this campaign this spring looking at a much wider universe of swing states, of anywhere from 18 to 21. The narrowing to just 11 states is a typical development late in a campaign, though it does not always happen. It would not be surprising if Bush or Kerry moved to other states in the last days of the campaign should they see an opening.
The starting assumption of the campaigns is that whoever wins two out of the top three — Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio — will win the presidency.
Bush's aides noted that Kerry was now in a situation where more Gore states were at risk than Bush states, suggesting that might allow them to endure even a loss of those three states. In addition, they said they were skeptical that Kerry would continue being competitive in Nevada and Colorado and that Kerry would come to regret a decision to fly across the country Saturday to Colorado.
And Bush's aides argued that Kerry had squandered millions of dollars in states where they had always said he had little chance of winning, like Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia and North Carolina.
That said, Bush is in a situation where he is still fighting in states that were critical to his victory in 2000, Ohio and Florida, and that have been critical to his re-election strategy. He returned to Ohio on Friday after a 19-day absence, during which Kerry appears to have made clear gains there.
Beyond that, even after paying 41 visits to Pennsylvania as of Friday — a state that Rove has long identified as his top take-back — Democratic state polls still show Kerry with a slight lead. And a brief flirtation with competing in New Jersey, one of the more solidly Democratic states, has now been abandoned by the White House, Republicans said.
The campaigns' advertising dollars reflect this shrinking list. Both Kerry's and Bush's biggest advertising buys have been in Florida, where they have both saturated several markets.
In many ways, the contest has become a battle between character traits and issues as Kerry tries to turn the campaign into a referendum on Bush's record as president and proposals for the future, while Bush relentlessly seeks to undercut his opponent as intellectually inconsistent and too weak to protect Americans in a time of terror.
And so aides to both sides said the key question is which candidate can determine what the debate in the final days is about — terror or the economy.
"The most important thing to watch is the struggle for control of the agenda," said Charles Black, a Republican consultant who advises the White House. "The president wants people to have their top priority to be terrorism and security. Kerry should want their priorities to be jobs and health care."