SEN. JOHN KERRY: Pound for pound, the best boxer in the world: Bernard Hopkins. Come on up here, man. (Cheers and applause)
MARGARET WARNER: New middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins had a present for John Kerry at the University of Pennsylvania last Friday.
BERNARD HOPKINS: First off, no matter if you fight in the ring or you fight as a politician, it's all a fight. And I'm getting Kerry prepared right now. (Applause)
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry could use some competitive tips in Pennsylvania, where he's in a bruising fight against the reigning incumbent in the White House. At the rally that included students from Penn's Wharton Business School, Kerry threw a few punches.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: My friends, they said oil would pay the cost of the war and it would only cost $1.7 billion. Hey, Wharton, what happens to a CEO when you say something's going to cost $1.7 billion and it costs $200 billion? You're fired. You're fired. ( Cheers and applause )
MARGARET WARNER: Pennsylvania has more electoral votes than any swing state except Florida. It went Democratic the last three elections, and Kerry's advisers acknowledge he can't afford to lose it and still hope to win the White House. But President Bush has been giving Sen. Kerry a pounding here, like this one on funding the Iraq war.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When asked to explain his vote, he said, "well, I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." (audience boos) Now I suspect that not many people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, talks that way. (Audience cheers )
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Bush has visited Pennsylvania more than any other targeted state, and it seems to have paid off. Kerry's mid-summer lead has faded and the race here is now too close to call. Both campaigns knew going in they'd have to contend with political quirks that make Pennsylvania different.
MAGGIE RASH: Cole, come up here. Look at this.
MARGARET WARNER: There are socially liberal Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, like Maggie Rash. This pro-choice Republican county supervisor went for Al Gore in 2000 and will now vote for Kerry.
MAGGIE RASH: I'm not supporting George Bush because his social issues are way too far to the right for me.
MARGARET WARNER: Then there are socially conservative lifelong Democrats to the west in the ethnic heartland near Pittsburgh.
MIKE MARANCHE: Up in this area, up on top of the hill, I used to go hunt grouse...
MARGARET WARNER: Allegheny county sportsman Mike Maranche still votes for Democrats locally, but he's so alienated by the party's positions on guns and school prayer that he hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in decades. And he won't this time, either.
MIKE MARANCHE: I looked at the leadership in the Democratic Party, just one reason, in the Democratic Party, and said to myself, "these people don't"-- I'm talking national party now-- "these people don't represent me."
MARGARET WARNER: By winning both these regions in 2000, Gore won Pennsylvania by four points.
MUSIC: Blood brothers in a stormy night with a vow to defend...
MARGARET WARNER: So why does John Kerry have such a tough fight on his hands in a state whose voting history and recent job losses should make it his natural turf? Pennsylvania is still Kerry country for many voters, says Franklin and Marshall College Professor Terry Madonna, director of the keystone poll.
TERRY MADONNA: The voters in the state who say it's the economy and healthcare by a significant plurality are likely to say they're voting for Sen. Kerry.
MARGARET WARNER: But when we asked Pennsylvania voters what they were looking for in a candidate, they talked about security. At a school-night soccer practice in Eastern Bucks County...
ANGELA PALO: I think the very first and most important thing is, I want my little boy to wake up and be safe and not be afraid.
MARGARET WARNER: ...And at a Saturday harvest festival in western Washington County.
JOANNE SCHULTZ: I like that feeling of feeling safe and secure for myself and my children, and I think everybody else would feel the same way.
SPOKESPERSON: Say ponies! Bunny! Macaroni!
MARGARET WARNER: Polls show the same shift, with concerns about terror now overshadowing the economy. And that, Madonna says, plays to Mr. Bush's strength.
TERRY MADONNA: They believe he's strong, that he's principled, that he means what he says. Now, they don't believe the nation's on the right track in many other ways, but on the war on terror, homeland security, he scores the highest.
MARGARET WARNER: But there's a political wild card whose impact with voters neither side can predict, and that's the war in Iraq. Erin Steele is a chiropractic assistant in Bucks County. Her boyfriend served with the Air Force reserves in Iraq and he supports President Bush, but she isn't so sure.
ERIN STEELE: The beheadings are very... just disturbing just to read about, to look at the faces blindfolded on TV. And on the whole, it just makes you wonder when you see that, is the right person in office? For this to happen, that we got to this point, are we there because of the president and his decisions? Would that have happened if somebody else were in office?
MARGARET WARNER: Some voters, like Vietnam vet Maranche, like Mr. Bush's hard line on Iraq.
MIKE MARANCHE: He took the war to our enemy instead of waiting for it to happen over and over again here at home.
MARGARET WARNER: Even some women, like Angela Palo-- who disagrees with Mr. Bush on social issues-- buy his argument that the Iraq conflict is part of the broader war on terror.
ANGELA PALO: No, you don't like to see people die. You don't like to see these innocent people beheaded. But where would we be if we didn't take this stand? Would they be over here again?
MARGARET WARNER: But the president's handling of Iraq has alienated other voters, like Jonathan and Kim Amey of Pittsburgh.
KIM AMEY: I don't believe that going to Iraq made us any safer from terrorists. I don't believe that there was a connection between al-Qaida and Iraq. So I feel that it was a distraction or digression rather than going after the real enemy. And as a result, I don't feel safer. I don't think that Tommy's safer.
DALE HARTSHORNE: This is the kind of thing that really riles me about this war.
MARGARET WARNER: The war in Iraq has even angered some lifelong Republicans. Retiree Dale Hartshorne of Montgomery County is bothered by so many deaths. He voted for George Bush last time, but now he's for Kerry.
DALE HARTSHORNE: To, you know, put our young men and women in harm's way to go do that, lose the prestige of the world, and now it turns out that all the reasons for going were lies, and it's unforgivable.
MARGARET WARNER: In final pre-debate visits to the state last week, both candidates previewed their arguments over whether the war in Iraq had made America safer from terrorism and who could best lead it now.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: This president took his eye off the real war on terror and he invaded a nation without a plan to win the peace. Let me tell you what I'm going to do as president. I will finish the job in Iraq, and I will make sure that we do what we need to do with honor, and we will not allow a failed state. But I will also fight a smarter, more effective war on terror. ( Applause )
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The world is safer with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell. (Applause) And so is America. The way to prevail, the way toward the successful conclusion we all want, the way to secure Iraq and bring our troops home as quickly as possible, is not to wilt or waver or send mixed signals to the enemy. (Applause)
SPOKESPERSON: Are you registered to vote?
MARGARET WARNER: Both campaigns are working to generate a bigger- than-ever turnout among their most loyal partisans on a host of issues.
SPOKESPERSON: You look forward to seeing you on Nov. 2 because every vote counts.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry's allies are working the African-American neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
SPOKESPERSON: Erin, if you want to take team three.
MARGARET WARNER: The Bush camp is working religious conservatives...
SPOKESPERSON: This is a strong Catholic neighborhood and, hopefully, they'll be in line and they'll be supporting the president in the fall.
MARGARET WARNER: ...And a fast-growing pool of new residents moving into once-rural areas. But the key to this state are the coveted undecideds...
SPOKESPERSON: Could I leave you with some literature here?
MARGARET WARNER: ...The voters most likely to be affected by Thursday night's debate. And polls show Sen. Kerry hasn't yet persuaded many of them that he has the leadership qualities they're seeking.
TERRY MADONNA: The commercials that the Bush folks have run in Pennsylvania for a long time now have laid seeds of doubt about who he is and what he stands for.
SPOKESPERSON: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Allegheny County landscaper Rick Miller, a Democrat, is in a quandary. He feels strongly that the Bush economic policies are hurting middle class families like his, but he's also nervous about electing a new president in wartime.
RICK MILLER: Republicans are good fighters, but hopefully Kerry can prove to us that he will be a strong leader overseas if he does get voted in. And he's going to have to. And he's going to have to pick up right away and go in. There's not going to be a break. So he's going to have to go in and just do it.
MARGARET WARNER: Retired piano teacher Kay Rinko, a Republican, is also undecided.
KAY RINKO: I think our top priority at this point is dealing with terrorism. And I think that Bush seems to understand the threat of terrorism more than Kerry. I don't think Kerry stands firm on issues and he is constantly changing his mind. And this makes me nervous.
MARGARET WARNER: So who has most at stake in Thursday's debate? The voters we spoke to said they know what kind of president George Bush is or would be in a second term. It seems to be Sen. Kerry who has the bigger challenge tomorrow night.
ERIN STEELE: I'd like to learn more about what Kerry is about. I want to see him speak, because I've already seen bush's work, clearly. Kerry we're not sure about, and I want to feel confidence before voting.
MARGARET WARNER: For Kerry to win that confidence, Westmoreland County Democratic chairman Rosemary Trump offers this advice.
ROSEMARY TRUMP: He has to show that he does have the leadership character, qualities and skills, as well as a vision of how to solve the problems that we are now faced in the Mid-East, and particularly in Iraq. And that message has to be presented in an elementary way so that people will understand it and respond to it.
MARGARET WARNER: How Pennsylvania voters respond to both candidates in tomorrow night's debate could well prove decisive.