Purple People Watch

Iowa. The state that propelled John Kerry into front-runner status is sticking with its man, at least according to the first post-primary-season poll conducted by The Des Moines Register. The poll reports that 49 percent of likely Iowa voters prefer Kerry, while 42 percent say they'll vote for George W. Bush. That's good news for Kerry, considering that Al Gore won Iowa in 2000 by one-half of a percentage point.

But most of the political buzz this week in Iowa surrounds Governor Tom Vilsack and his place on Kerry's vice-presidential short list. Appearing at his sixth Kerry campaign event in weeks, Vilsack -- who is also serving as the Democratic National Convention's platform committee chairman this year -- has become a one-issue attack dog, rapping the president on rising gas costs over and over again. He's become so vocal, in fact, that the Bush-Cheney campaign attacked back in The Des Moines Register last week, accusing Vilsack of distorting Bush's record for political gains. Vilsack's chances at the vice-presidential slot are only going to increase, however, with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's endorsement last Friday.

Maine. Gore's 5.1-percent margin of victory in 2000 was not overwhelming, but it was certainly healthy. Ralph Nader, meanwhile, took 5.7 percent of the vote, suggesting the existence of a large reserve of liberal votes on which Kerry can draw in case things get close. Unlike Gore, moreover, Kerry is a New Englander in a state that's been cool to Bush. Maine's two senators are old-school moderate Republicans (one got denounced in a Club for Growth ad calling her a "Franco-Republican") and its two representatives are Democrats.

So what's to worry about? Well, those “Down Easters” have an unusual system for allocating its four electoral votes. Whoever gets the most votes statewide wins two. You can pick up one more for winning the first electoral district, and the fourth goes to the winner of the second district. Gore won both in 2000, but he won the "urban" first district by a wider margin than he did the sprawling second district. It's less a battleground state than a battleground congressional district. And thanks to gerrymandering, the new, 21st-century version of the 2nd District is more solidly Democratic turf than its predecessor.

The one thing Bush has going for him is that the GOP has been engaging in some good, old-fashioned geo-pandering. With Trent Lott out of the majority leader's seat (and out of the White House's good graces), the GOP has repositioned itself as a more Maine-friendly source of shipbuilding contracts. The Bush campaign, meanwhile, is criticizing Kerry for a vote against the construction of some AEGIS cruisers built in Maine's own Bath Iron Works. Pollsters aren't tracking Vacationland very clearly -- the only data available points toward a crushing 51-to-38 win for Kerry. And that was back on March 3, before Bush's national numbers started to collapse.

Missouri. The good news is that a Zogby poll conducted May 18-23 showed Kerry had a slim lead (3.3 percent, within the margin of error). The bad news is Democrats are dealing with a gay-marriage amendment. They want to hold a vote on the amendment during an August 3 primary, when Missourians go to the Ozarks for vacation and nobody really cares about anything except mosquitoes. Republicans want the vote scheduled for November 2, when people do care about politics -- and the charged issue will probably bring more conservatives to the polls.

That's not all: Kerry has only just appointed the head of his state operations (Anthony T. Wilson, a 40-year-old Kansas City native). Yet Republicans have already formed a state battalion of 13,000 volunteers, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Recruits are given "fat playbooks with five pages of single-spaced talking points to use when discussing issues with voters" (i.e., the Iraq War, in which "U.S.-led forces 'liberated 26 million people from a ruthless dictatorship that had developed and used weapons of mass destruction'") and told to keep the playbooks in their “glove compartments at all times." On Saturday in St. Louis, 200 of the volunteers worked the phones, knocked on doors, and, presumably, tried to put a positive spin on Abu Ghraib.

Nevada. At first glance, Nevada seems an unlikely pickup for Kerry. Since Bush's 3.5 percent victory in 2000, the Republican advantage in voter registration has grown nearly tenfold. What's more, Nevada has had the strongest job growth in the nation over the last three years. But Bush faces powerful “Not-In-My-Backyard” opposition regarding his plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. In Bush's 2000 campaign, he promised not to sign legislation to create the repository "unless it's been deemed scientifically safe"; in 2002, he endorsed the dump despite a General Accounting Office report citing nearly 300 unanswered questions about the safety and security of the proposal. While state Democrats call Yucca Mountain "the most important issue facing our state," Nevada GOPers are trying to downplay the significance of Bush's reversal and question Kerry's pledge to maintain his opposition to the repository.

Kerry reaffirmed his Yucca position with a campaign stop in heavily Democratic Las Vegas on May 17. (Laura Bush followed him two days later to promote her husband.) Kerry stopped at the Teamsters Unity Conference while in Vegas; he'll be relying on the significant labor infrastructure to rally voters in Clark County, which accounted for 70 percent of Gore's total in 2000. Thus far, the strategy seems to be working. While Bush held a commanding 11-point lead in the last major poll of the state (back in mid-March), Kerry had swung a narrow lead -- 3.8 percent, just inside the margin of error -- as of the Zogby poll released earlier this week.

Oregon and Washington. John Kerry swept into the Pacific Northwest in style earlier this week
to spend some quality time with swing voters in Oregon and Washington. The Kerry entourage touched down in Portland in a new campaign plane emblazoned with "John Kerry" and "President" on its sides. The candidate seemed happy with his new ride, joking that "in the event of an emergency, my hair can be used as a flotation device."

But Kerry isn't kidding around when it comes to the Pacific Northwest. This is Kerry's second visit to the region in two weeks. In 2000, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in both states by a narrow margin,
winning a combined 18 electoral votes. Although John Kerry can take nothing for granted, a recent Zogby poll confirms that the candidate maintains a small lead in both states. In a poll published April 5,
Washington pollster Stuart Elway had Kerry with 46 percent, Bush at 41 percent, and Ralph Nader at 2 percent. In Oregon, a recent media poll showed Kerry ahead by 4 percent.

Kerry used this trip to talk about the national security threat posed by dependence on Middle East oil. That issue has particular resonance in the region; Washington motorists were paying an average of $2.34 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline on Tuesday. According to AAA, that's the highest in state history. Oregon's average price is even higher, ringing in at $2.32 a gallon.

West Virginia. In a twist odd even by the baroque standards of West Virginia politics, Republican gubernatorial nominee Monty Warner called on Joe Manchin, his Democratic opponent this fall, to endorse Bush for re-election. It would seem that the motivation for such a ploy was to put Manchin, a centrist Democrat who crushed the Democratic field in the April 11 primary and is heavily favored over Warner, in a pickle and force him to declare his allegiance to a dreaded Massachusetts liberal. “I pose a question to Joe,” Warner told the local media. “I think in his heart of hearts, when he looks in the mirror at night, he says, ‘George Bush is the best for the country.' He's somewhat hamstrung in his ability to do the right thing.”

But it's weird, because it's not as if Bush is so immensely popular in the state: In a respected statewide poll taken in late April, Bush led Kerry by just 49 percent to 45 percent, which was within the margin of error. Still, Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg didn't inspire great confidence in the state's Kerry people when she said that her boss supports “the Democratic nominee,” the kind of language that is usually a function of the fact that the speaker doesn't want to be caught on tape saying a particular proper name. Manchin has so far attended both of Kerry's events in the state, but Ramsburg said last week that Manchin won't spend time stumping for other candidates.

One of Gore's problems in West Virginia in 2000 was that the state's Democratic establishment hardly lifted a finger for him. Kerry ought to be able to win the state if he makes sure that's different this time. He did well by officially starting his campaign in the Mountain State, but it sounds as if he's still got work to do.

Compiled by the Prospect staff. Click here to read last week's Purple People Watch.

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