The blue state Kerry could easily lose.

The corner booth at the Culver’s in Dodgeville, Wis., could probably seat a family of six, but on a recent afternoon, there was just enough room for me, Steve Freese, and Steve Freese’s map. Freese is the Bush campaign chairman for Wisconsin’s rural Iowa County. As I took my seat, he unfurled a county map so big and so detailed that it listed the owners of each plot of land. Freese was able to point out the names of individual voters and explain why they’ll cast ballots for Bush, but he seemed more interested in showing me the purple-and-green stickers that dotted the county. They were the sort usually employed by first-grade teachers. Each one read, “WOW!” “Wherever you see a ‘WOW!’,” Freese said with satisfaction, “we’ve got a 4-by-8 sign.” There were eight WOW!s on the map.

The 4-by-8 yard signs are significant in campaign-land: Because they’re allocated by Victory 2004, the state party’s turnout campaign, they indicate how important the campaign directors think your county is. In 2000, Bush ignored rural southwestern Wisconsin. (“We didn’t get yard signs until the weekend before the election!” Freese said.) Gore, on the other hand, lavished attention on the area, chartering a boat and idling down the Mississippi River along Wisconsin’s western border. Bush lost the region—and the state—to Gore. But the margin was tantalizingly small. Gore won Wisconsin by just 5,708 votes, or 0.2 percent. So for the past four years, local Republicans have been hatching plans to paint the state red this Nov. 2. The question is whether the Kerry campaign—and independent outfits like America Coming Together, the League of Conservation Voters, and the countless other left-leaning groups planning get-out-the-vote initiatives here—will be organized enough to compensate for the Republicans’ head start. So far, most polls show the state leaning slightly to Bush.

Wisconsin is a funny swing state. A century ago, Robert LaFollette Sr.  launched the Progressive movement here, and his success may explain why so many Wisconsinites still think taxes and government services are reasonably sound ideas. Many of those voters reside in Wisconsin’s rural areas, which aren’t necessarily Republican. (Gore won nearly 40 percent of the state’s rural counties in 2000; he won just 18 percent of rural counties nationwide.) Wisconsin’s cities, meanwhile, aren’t reliably Democratic. (Bush took metro Milwaukee, with lots of help from the suburbs.) And the state doesn’t even swing that much: The last time Wisconsin chose a Republican for president, it was Reagan in 1984. But Wisconsin’s consistent record belies how closely contested it usually is. Seven of the last 11 presidential elections have been decided by five points or fewer. Sure, the state produced Democrat Russ Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. (Feingold’s up for re-election this year, and the most recent polls suggest he’ll win handily.) But Wisconsin also gave us Tommy Thompson—Bush’s secretary of health and human services—who was a beloved Republican governor here from 1987 to 2001. It’s no surprise Republicans saw Wisconsin as ripe for the picking.

As in most swing states, the GOP got organized early. Victory 2004 is coordinating efforts in every county, and has placed particular emphasis on the rural areas Bush took for granted in 2000. “I’ve been focused on this campaign for four years,” said Linda Hansen, the Bush campaign chairman for Crawford, a rural county that Gore won by 13 percentage points. Hansen seems more competent than Superwoman: She’s still home-schooling two of her six kids while working 80 hours a week on the election. (She did take a day off from campaigning—to run a marathon.) Hansen has volunteers working phone banks to identify Bush voters and going door-to-door to hand out absentee ballots. (Wisconsin, which allows voters to register on Election Day, will also let anyone cast an absentee ballot.) She got President Bush to come speak in Prairie du Chien in May. She had get-out-the-vote teams in place and trained by the beginning of October. When local women whose husbands are in Iraq meet for a monthly support group, Hansen arranges for the Teenage Republicans to babysit their kids. If Bush and Cheney win Wisconsin, it will be because they have a Linda Hansen in every county—a local Republican who knows the community well and has been working very hard for a very long time.

The Kerry campaign has been slower to get organized. Many of the Kerry field offices are run by campaign workers who come from out of state and arrived sometime in July. When they tried to recruit local volunteers, some Kerry staffers found they faced competition from ACT and other independent groups, most of which had arrived in Wisconsin before July. One field director, who has three counties to keep track of, has tried to coordinate with local Democrats, but found that in at least a few areas, the county parties were “defunct.” And the county parties that are active aren’t getting much direction from the campaign—Dale Klemme, the president of the Democratic Party in Crawford County, has been doing yeoman’s work, but said the Kerry folks seem focused on the cities. (“We had trouble getting yard signs,” he noted; the locals made their own.) In Milwaukee proper, the Kerry campaign is faring slightly better, in part because Gwen Moore, a black woman, is the Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional seat. She’s expected to win, and Democrats are hoping that black voters will turn out in greater than usual numbers to support her. Still, most Kerry staffers freely acknowledge that the Bush folks got a head start.

It certainly seems like Kerry is quietly waiting for the independent groups—which his campaign can’t coordinate with—to pick up the slack. The question is whether they can save the state for him. The independents are here in force—ACT, the LCV, the Young Voter Alliance, NARAL Pro-Choice America, USAction, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, and the SEIU, among others—and the America Votes coalition is coordinating their efforts. I met with Peter Shakow, America Votes’ man in Wisconsin, in the Madison office he shares with ACT. Shakow has a map, too. The America Votes groups share a voter file; he keeps tabs on which groups are canvassing where to make sure they don’t overlap. His map of Milwaukee shows which wards have been allotted to which groups. “So your poor person at 123 Elm Street doesn’t get seven knocks in one day,” Shakow explains.

Despite Shakow’s best efforts, the people of Wisconsin have knock fatigue. Liz Lundeen, a canvasser with the League of Conservation Voters, is prepared. “We call this the ‘friendly knock,’ ” she says, demonstrating on a door in West Allis, a pretty working-class suburb * in Milwaukee. The knock has a little syncopation at the end: Tap-tap-tap-tip-tap. “It’s less of a police knock.” Lundeen would be a sophomore at Wake Forest, where she’s on the debate team, but she’s taken the semester off to work toward Kerry’s election. As we stroll past pumpkins and leaf bags, Liz knocks on 56 doors in about three hours. The people who answer listen politely, but you can tell they’ve heard similar pitches before, whether from canvassers, phone-bankers, or the pitchmen in ubiquitous television and radio ads. One man, standing over his hibachi in sweat pants, nods resignedly as Lundeen explains, “Wisconsin was decided by less than 6,000 votes last year.” As she speaks, he mouths, “I know.”

Still, Lundeen’s task is as much to identify the voters as to persuade them. The LCV wants to know who’s supporting Bush (so they don’t waste any more time), who’s supporting Kerry (potential volunteers), and who’s truly undecided. (These voters get follow-up visits and customized mailings about the issues that concern them.) While I was with her, Liz talked to 22 people. Three were undecided. Seven were for Kerry and three were leaning toward him. Another seven were for the president and two were leaning toward him. (Although one of the Bush leaners seemed to have his mind made up: When he answered the door with his young daughter in tow, she hopped up and down with a sing-song chant: “I love Bush! I love Bush!”) When Lundeen went back to the office, her results were entered into the master voter file, where they’ll be available for groups like ACT to access. The weekend before the election, America Votes will use the voter file to marshal its resources accordingly, sending turnout volunteers to Democratic houses and neighborhoods, primarily in Madison, Milwaukee, and Milwaukee’s swingable suburbs.

This GOTV strategy may succeed: The people behind independent groups are smart, energized, and working full-tilt. But itdoesn’t seem particularly tailored to the ways in which Wisconsin is different from other hotly contested states. Like GOTV drives everywhere, the Wisconsin effort is concentrating on urban areas, where left-leaning voters are abundant, and the small lots are canvass-friendly. But in Wisconsin, a substantial portion of Democratic voters live in more sparsely populated regions. Except for some ACT organizing in the counties surrounding Stevens Point in central Wisconsin, the independent groups have largely neglected rural areas. Bush lost Wisconsin in 2000 by ignoring its rural counties. Could the independent groups lose Wisconsin for Kerry by making the same mistake?

Correction, October 28, 2004: This piece originally called West Allis a neighborhood in Milwaukee. It is a suburb of the city. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)