GOP and Democrats race to register voters

More campaign money is being filtered into voter registration.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Campaign strategy doesn't get much more fundamental than registering voters and turning them out to the polls. The first half of that equation is playing out this year in Pennsylvania in what both sides say is already the earliest, most expansive registration contest in state history.
Republicans are counting on disciplined county organizations to chip away at the 5-percentage-point edge in statewide registration Democrats have maintained for years. Between November 1998 and this April, the gap between the parties has remained precisely the same -- a 443,000-voter Democratic advantage.
GOP officials say that could be changing, boasting they have already met a self-imposed goal of registering 143,000 new voters this year. It's an ambitious push that U.S. Rep. Phil English, an Erie Republican, calls unprecedented.
"Virtually every weekend there is a formal effort aimed at not only door-knocking in neighborhoods but also hitting events where likely Republican voters are," he said.
Democrats are counting on the work of union members, the party's traditional source of grass-roots manpower. But this year a new element is in the mix -- so-called 527 organizations, tax-exempt groups free to spend money to influence federal elections as long as they don't coordinate their work with the parties or candidates.
In Pennsylvania, the most active of the 527s is America Coming Together, funded in part by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. In less than a year it has hired 100 people and opened offices in six cities.
ACT mobilized about a thousand people for a one-day registration drive in May, and although spokeswoman Rebecca Kirszner won't say how many they have signed up so far, she predicts impressive results come Nov. 2.
Bush campaign spokesman Kevin Madden calls the 527s illegal and a "supplemental arm of the Kerry campaign."
"The way we look at it, the 527s that are out there supporting the Kerry campaign are violating the letter and the spirit of the law. They're much more apt to apologize later rather than ask questions first," Madden said.
Focusing on voter registration goes against what had been conventional wisdom among political consultants -- that money was better spent on television advertising. But with the pool of undecided voters unusually small this year, registration efforts are seen as way to squeeze more votes from the base.
"They're going to spend $750 million in this presidential election. There's just so much money and there [are] so little differences -- people think this can make a big difference," said Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall College professor and political analyst.
Model for program
The Democrats are modeling their outreach on a program they credit for achieving more than 110,000 new or updated registrations and contributing to a 17-point re-election victory by Philadelphia Mayor John Street last year. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, said the idea is to integrate registration with "hand-holding up through the election itself," contacts that include e-mails, phone calls and a final push to get their voters to the polls.
English said he doubts that Philadelphia's idiosyncratic politics can provide much of a template for the rest of the state, but acknowledges that the political landscape this season is so odd that any predictions -- or polls -- have to be taken with a grain of salt.
"We'll see what the level of public engagement is on Election Day. And I think that will determine how big an impact these organizations are [having] on both sides," he said.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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