MIAMI - In the closing hours of their bitter campaign, President Bush and challenger Sen. John Kerry charged through the critical battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio on Sunday, going from hushed church services to raucous campaign rallies with promises to keep America safe.
Kerry said that if elected he would undertake an unprecedented "flurry of activity" to protect national security that would include quick Cabinet appointments. "I'm going to make America safer and I have some very strong and real steps to take quite immediately to make that happen," Kerry said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Bush emphasized a similar theme. "If you believe America should fight the war on terror with all her might and lead with unwavering confidence," the president said, "I ask you, come stand by me.
"If you are a Democrat who believes your party has turned too far left in this year, I ask you, come stand with me," Bush said.
Strategists on both sides said Tuesday's election likely will hinge on which party is successful in getting their voters to the polls after two vastly different and costly campaigns to increase turnout.
Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry said the Democratic campaign was no longer concerned with generating big turnouts at rallies, but was focused instead on having Kerry make quick stops to attract local media coverage that might help voters decide.
A rash of polls suggested the race for the popular vote was essentially tied after the costliest political advertising campaign in history - more than $600 million spent by Bush, Kerry, their political parties and allied groups.
The election's outcome also was uncertain in the battleground states, the eight or so states where Bush and Kerry are vying for a winning margin of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. The campaign's final weekend was clouded by war and terrorism - a videotape by Osama bin Laden and the deaths of eight U.S. Marines in Iraq.
Nonetheless, Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser called the race for Bush. "We're ahead," he told reporters in Cincinnati, Ohio, the last campaign stop Sunday. "We will win Florida and Ohio. We will take at least two or three or four states that were won by (Democrat Al) Gore in the last election."
Bush made a pitch for Hispanic voters in Miami, promising Cuban-American voters that he would push for freedom in communist Cuba. "We will not rest - we will not rest, we will keep the pressure on until the Cuban people enjoy the same freedoms in Havana they receive here in America," Bush said. The crowd responded with cries of "Viva Bush."
The president began the day at The Church of the Epiphany, a Roman Catholic church where the pastor, Monsignor Jude O'Doherty, all but endorsed Bush. "Mr. President, I want you to know that I admire your faith and your courage to profess it," the priest said in a long tribute to Bush. "Your belief in prayer and dependence on God has to be an example for all of us."
Kerry, who is Catholic, worshipped in Dayton, Ohio, first at a Catholic Mass and then - for the fifth consecutive Sunday - at a predominantly black church, the Shiloh Baptist Church.
Quoting the Bible and criticizing Bush without naming him, Kerry said, "There is a standard by which we have to live. Coming to church on Sundays and talking about faith and professing faith isn't the whole deal."
Bush campaigned from one end of Florida to the other, with rallies in Miami, Tampa and Gainesville before flying to Ohio for an evening rally in Cincinnati. Kerry dashed north from Ohio to New Hampshire and then was appearing in Tampa at a rally.
Both sides said Sunday was eerily quiet on the campaign trail. Senior advisers in both camps dropped off and raced home to take their children trick-or-treating on Halloween. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, are being accompanied by their three grandchildren. Elizabeth, 7, wore a costume as the Grim Reaper at a rally in Romulus, Mich., and was introduced by Mrs. Cheney as "John Kerry's health plan ."
Cheney said Kerry's first response to bin Laden's new videotape was to take a poll to find out what he should say about it. A spokesman for Kerry's campaign did not deny polling on the bin Laden videotape, but suggested Bush has done the same. Bush's campaign strategist denied asking any poll questions about the al-Qaida terrorist.
Bush told NBC News, meanwhile, that bin Laden is "not going to intimidate or decide this election" and said, "We are systematically destroying al-Qaida."
"Because we've taken decisive action, al-Qaida's being dismantled. And we'll eventually get Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, we're destroying his network, slowly but surely, systematically destroying it."
Asked about former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's comment that troops in Iraq bore the responsibility for missing explosives, the president said: "I never blame our troops. I'd be glad to blame myself. I'm the person that has committed our troops into combat." But he added there is "a lot of conflicting information about ammunition sites" and said U.S. troops have secured or destroyed 400,000 tons of munitions.
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, raced through Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where he was knocking on doors in a Columbus neighborhood. He also was to do telephone interviews with Hawaii newspapers; Cheney was heading for a rally in traditionally Democratic Hawaii.
With little new to say after months of speeches and millions in commercials, both candidates hoped to energize their supporters to get to the polls. The two sides have get-out-the-vote operations which are groundbreaking in their size and expense.
The Bush campaign has built a web of neighborhood volunteers who take directions, largely by e-mail, from his Arlington, Va., headquarters. Kerry will depend on a conglomerate of labor, party and liberal issue-driven groups that target and motivate voters with armies of paid workers.
Four years ago, Democratic nominee Al Gore had 90,000 people with specifically assigned jobs working to get out the vote on Election Day. This year, Kerry has 47,000 in Ohio alone - 250,000 nationally. The growth of the Republican operation is just as big, if not bigger.
A spate of new state polls showed Bush and Kerry knotted in their top targets: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico.
Both men sweated it out in other states. Polls showed Bush doing slightly better than expected in Michigan, Iowa and New Jersey. Kerry was within striking distance in Arkansas, Missouri and Colorado, though Bush still led in GOP-leaning states.
Associated Press Writers Terence Hunt in Washington and Nedra Pickler in Dayton, Ohio, contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Kerry-Edwards campaign: http://www.johnkerry.com
Bush-Cheney campaign: http://www.georgewbush.com