Illinois seen as John Kerry's, but Republicans still fighting

Saturday, October 16, 2004

CHICAGO -- Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's supporters in Illinois are deep in grassroots mode: identifying Kerry voters, writing letters to newspaper editors, setting up phone banks.

The roots they're planting, though, aren't in Illinois.

Pollsters and pundits have written off Illinois as solidly in Kerry's column, so many Democratic volunteers are heading to swing states like Wisconsin and Iowa to have a better chance at swaying the election. President Bush's supporters hope that will give them the opportunity to make inroads in the increasingly Democratic state.

"We have not given up on Illinois. We are in the trenches every day," said Bob Kjellander, the regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "I think, frankly, the Kerry folks have taken Illinois for granted."

Recent polls show Kerry with a comfortable lead over Bush in Illinois, where voters gave Democrat Al Gore a big win in 2000. Taking a cue from those polls, the candidates and their running mates have spent little time in the state aside from a few private fund raisers, and they're spending their TV advertising dollars elsewhere.

Avis LaVelle, state director for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said Illinois Democrats are "not asleep" when it comes to the presidential race. The campaign has an apparatus in place bring out the vote in Illinois, she said, so volunteers can turn their efforts to more contested states.

"We're kind of externally focused," LaVelle said. "We are very aggressively working Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa with travelers and phone bankers."

LaVelle said it has been difficult to get voters excited about the race without the presence of the candidates or television advertising. Her volunteers have been working to make sure Democrats don't get complacent and stay home on Election Day.

Kjellander, meanwhile, says Republicans are "doing all the nonsexy things that put us in a position, if polling turns our way, of making a late run here."

That includes fund raising for the state party, identifying potential Bush voters and gearing up for a 72-hour task force starting the weekend before the election.

Keith Boeckelman, an associate professor of political science at Western Illinois University, said the only way Bush would win Illinois is in a landslide victory so huge that Illinois' electoral votes wouldn't really matter.

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