GWEN IFILL: On Clark Street in Canton, Ohio, the lawns are tidy, the houses are modest, and Dave Leasure's work is door to door.
DAVE LEASURE: Hi, I'm Dave Leasure. I'm in the area with ACT-Ohio, which stands for America Coming Together.
GWEN IFILL: Leasure lost his $20- an-hour steelworkers' job in 2002. He now makes half that knocking on hundreds of doors for ACT, a Democratic-leaning activist group.
GWEN IFILL: So what do people say when you come knocking? What are the issues?
DAVE LEASURE: Certainly the economy here, because we lost 231,000 jobs. So, we talk about those things. We talk about education, healthcare, Social Security...
GWEN IFILL: These days, his job is convincing the residents of this struggling and politically critical county to register, and especially to go to the polls.
DAVE LEASURE: We've talked to these people now several times, and in some instances, with us talking to them several times and everybody else that's out here doing their part for the November election, they go, you know, "hey, it's a little bit of an overload. Every time I open the door, somebody's handing me literature of some kind." So...
GWEN IFILL: That's the kind of problem you want to have.
DAVE LEASURE: Yeah, exactly.
GWEN IFILL: Leasure is far from alone in this political equivalent of grunt work. At Stark County Republican headquarters here, volunteers spend their evenings stuffing envelopes, dialing for votes...
CALLER: Can President Bush count on your support?
GWEN IFILL: ...And delivering a disciplined message.
VOLUNTEER: I'm a volunteer. President Bush is committed to defending America in the war on terror, growing the economy and...
GWEN IFILL: This year, Ohio has attracted stars, party crashers and candidate visits in unprecedented numbers, all hoping to drive their most reliable supporters to the polls. The candidates attract the media coverage. President Bush stresses the issue of security.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Go out and register your friends and neighbors. Tell them they have a duty in America to vote. And remind them if they want a safer America, a stronger America, and a better America, to put me and Dick Cheney back in office. (Cheers and applause) Our strategy is clear: We're defending the homeland, we're reforming and strengthening intelligence services, we're strengthening our volunteer army. We're striking the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. (Applause )
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Kerry puts more emphasis on the economy.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: When he became president, we had a strong economy. We had just finished creating 23 million new jobs. We had the highest rate of income in America. Unemployment was as low as it's been in years. In the span of four years, he has added more to the debt of each and every one of you than was added from George Washington through Ronald Reagan, okay? Conservative? There's nothing conservative about these people. They're radical. They're extreme.
GWEN IFILL: President Bush won Ohio in 2000, but not by much. And since this state has voted with the winner 24 times in the last 26 elections, both major candidates consider it a must- win. This year, the door-to-door combat for Ohio's 20 electoral votes resulted in a surge of new registrations, which have thrown an unpredictable wrench into the state's battleground status. Few here are bold enough to predict how this is going to turn out. There are too many unknowns.
For instance, one quarter of all the jobs lost in the United States were lost right here in Ohio. Then, there's the wild card of Iraq. And this puzzling question: No one knows how many of all those brand-new registered voters are going to even bother to show up on Election Day, Nov. 2. Stark County, which has historically been a good barometer of this swing state, is an especially attractive target. Its largest city, Canton, is the home of President William McKinley and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's also absorbed its share of bad economic news. ( Cheers and applause ) President Bush visited Canton's big employer, Timken manufacturing, last year.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm honored to be in Canton, and I'm honored to be here at the Timken Company. (Horn blast)
GWEN IFILL: But this past spring, Timken announced that, without union concessions, it will close three of its plants within two years, taking 1,300 jobs with them. The problems are statewide. Cleveland, the state's largest city, recently won the unenviable distinction of being declared the nation's poorest. And everywhere in the state, from the Appalachian towns to the south, to the steel towns in the north, the vote hunters have taken to the streets.
JACKIE BRAY: Hi guys, I'm Jackie Bray. I'm with vote mob, which is a young voters project for 21st century Democrats. Today, we're going to knock on over 1,000 doors. We're going to talk to hundreds of voters. ( Cheers and applause )
GWEN IFILL: By last week, Bray's group had registered more than 8,000 voters in Ohio alone.
JACKIE BRAY: We're going to rewrite the story on the youth vote. No longer is it going to be the vote that stays home on Election Day. This election, it's going to be the vote that decides on Election Day.
MAN: Registration, Paul. May I help you?
GWEN IFILL: Still, the Election Day formula is about more than registration and turnout. For legions of election lawyers deployed here by both campaigns, it's also about making sure Ohio does not become the Florida of 2004. Three-quarters of all voters will be using the punch card ballots that caused so much trouble in 2000, and state officials are already worried.
AD SPOKESMAN: So remember, align your ballot carefully in the machine. Punch it clean, all the way through. Make sure there are no Florida hanging chads.
GWEN IFILL: Both major parties are already assailing the process, with Democrats accusing Republicans of conspiring to keep voters away from the polls, and Republicans accusing Democrats of illegally pumping up their registration numbers. Political scientist John Green at the University of Akron:
JOHN GREEN: Many people react to this sort of normal sorting through the registrations with a very negative reaction. There are many groups that see this really as voter suppression, not just making sure that we have an accurate voter list.
GWEN IFILL: Might it be?
JOHN GREEN: It might in fact have that effect of suppressing the vote, because many of the people in question are not regular voters, and they're people that might easily be intimidated by official sounding proceedings.
GWEN IFILL: And that's just the process. Issues could also determine the winner. With a gay marriage ban on the ballot this fall and events in Iraq dominating the headlines, the state is no slam dunk for Democrats or Republicans.
JOHN GREEN: The economic factors aren't translating directly into politics. There's been the long-term economic decline in Ohio, particularly in northeastern Ohio. So voters are a little bit skeptical about politicians coming in and talking about the economy. They know it's bad, but it's been bad under Democratic and Republican administrations.
SPOKESPERSON: We'll go down to the patio.
GWEN IFILL: Retirees Rich and Joyce Freeland are the kind of staunch Bush supporters the president is counting on. They have volunteered for the president, visited with him here, and been to the White House.
GWEN IFILL: Is this different than previous years?
RICH FREELAND: I think there's more intensity. I notice more intensity on both sides, both the Republican and Democratic side, and I know when we're volunteering down at headquarters that the people that come in seem more invigorated, more intense.
JOYCE FREELAND: I have my fingers crossed that it's not going to be close enough that we have it contested as we did in the year of 2000. I don't want our country to have to go through that again. So win, lose, of course, we think we're going to win, and we'll win big enough so that they don't have to be contested.
GWEN IFILL: The debate plays out on a weekday morning at Fisher's Supermarket as nearly every shopper we talked to offered a different assessment. There were Kerry voters.
GWEN IFILL: What are the issues this year?
BETTY QUINCY: Loss of jobs, business going out, education. They don't have enough money. It's just a lot of things really, and the economy. The economy is terrible.
GWEN IFILL: Bush voters. Explain this to me. You were laid off from Republic Steel. You worked there for 38 years. Yet, you're supporting George W. Bush.
FRED MASTERS: Right. This decline in jobs and outsourcing didn't just start under Bush. This has been going on for a number of years. I've voted Democrat before. I've voted independent. But I'm going to vote for Bush. I don't think now is the time for change.
GWEN IFILL: And the undecided, like Vicky Ryan, a registered Republican.
VICKY RYAN: No one has any money. No one can afford anything. School levies aren't passing. Money's tight. It's no fun. You can't enjoy life if you can't spend your money.
GWEN IFILL: You're the kind of Republican that George W. Bush worries about.
VICKY RYAN: Yes, I know.
GWEN IFILL: Should he be worried?
VICKY RYAN: (Laughs)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The sun is shining on Ohio. ( Cheers and applause )
GWEN IFILL: So the ground wars continue, with rallies and photo opportunities for the candidates.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I'm sorry you're going through it, but help is on the way.
GWEN IFILL: And high-stakes grassroots voter mobilization for their supporters...
SPOKESMAN: Hopefully, that will give you a little more insight. And I thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
GWEN IFILL: ...With everything at stake on election day.