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St. Paul, Minn. — If it seems that lately Minnesota's seen more than its fair share of presidential candidates and their proxies stopping to visit, the poll shows why. The state is a statistical tossup and, as such, one of the few true battlegrounds that will determine the November election. But even though the state as a whole seems torn between the two leading candidates, individual voters are clearly choosing sides.
Jean Peterson, 73, of St. Peter, is one of 625 likely voters contacted last week for the poll. Peterson, who's retired from teaching at Minnesota State University, Mankato, says she's generally voted Democratic. And she says she's long been disillusioned with the president.
"From day one," says Peterson. "But it's certainly grown distasteful right along, just step by step by step. And it culminated in going to war in Iraq. That was just going the wrong direction, that is true."
More than one-fourth of respondents cited the situation in Iraq as the most important issue in the campaign -- only a few percentage points shy of the 30 percent who listed the economy and jobs as their primary concern. The poll has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Respondents as a whole were split over who would better manage the economy, with exactly 42 percent backing each of the two major candidates. But on the war in Iraq and the ongoing campaign against terrorism, Bush holds a strong advantage. More than 50 percent consider him better qualified in both of those two categories. By contrast, Kerry's numbers are stuck below 40 percent.
Bush supporters also say they're motivated by his position on social issues. Andrea Walsh, 57, is a real estate agent from Prior Lake. She says one of her main concerns is the moral environment that children face.
"I can't say I'm opposed to same-sex marriage, although I think it's a detriment to our children," says Walsh. "It's like pro-life. I'm pro-life; I'm not anti-abortion. I'm pro-family; I'm not anti-gay marriage."
The poll finds that voters who express a preference for Bush or Kerry say they're unlikely to change their minds between now and election day. While that might explain why the poll numbers haven't shifted much since the last MPR-Pioneer Press poll in May, it's not exactly an indication that Minnesotans are enthusiastic about either candidate.
Those undecided voters, I don't think are going to decide until they get to that last couple of weeks, where they really are forced to make a decision.
Mark Wavinak, 47, of Bloomington, is a sixth grade teacher. He says he'll almost certainly vote for Kerry, but not because he's come to embrace the candidate or his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
"I think they have some good ideas," Wavinak says. "I don't know if they're the best candidates out there. I see them as an alternative, that I just haven't been happy with Bush and can't see us doing another four years of this."
To some extent, a similar wariness exists on the Republican side. Richard Nelson, 74, is retired from the publishing business. The Buffalo resident says he's voted for the GOP presidential candidate in every election since 1952, and that he's not about to switch parties now. Still, he says he's neither happy with Bush's handling of the Iraq war, nor is he impressed by the president's public image.
But Nelson, who served in the Army during the Korean War era, says there's no way he could support Kerry based on the candidate's opposition to the Vietnam War.
"I don't like the way he came back and protested when our boys were getting killed," Nelson says. "I think they're protesting in this country at the time of a war prolongs the war."
With many voters' heels dug in, the race seems more and more in the hands of the 9 percent who are undecided. Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon research oversaw the polling. He says Minnesotans who haven't made up their minds aren't likely to reach any conclusions in the near term.
"Those undecided voters, I don't think are going to decide until they get to that last couple of weeks -- where they really are forced to make a decision," says Coker.
Independent candidate Ralph Nader has support from only 2 percent of respondents. If he's removed from the equation, Kerry moves ahead to a three-point lead, but the race remains a statistical tie. Still, Coker says in such a tight election, a few percentage points could be all that matter.