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Bush, Kerry in last-ditch scrap to break deadlock
George W. Bush and John Kerry took their presidential race down to the wire, barnstorming across key battleground states in a last-ditch push for votes to swing a contest that remained stubbornly deadlocked.
With poll after poll showing the rivals still level ahead of Tuesday's vote, one survey stood out in suggesting an erosion in support for president Bush on the key issues of terrorism and the war in Iraq.
The candidates' final-day marathons coincided with a massive voter mobilisation drive involving millions of Republican and Democrat volunteers charged with securing a big turnout.
"At rallies that focused on crucial midwestern swing states, Bush and his Democratic challenger hammered home the same national security themes that have dominated the campaign, while reaching out to small but potentially pivotal groups of undecided voters.
"This election comes down to who do you trust. Who do you trust to make this country secure?" Bush, 58, told supporters in Pennsylvania, his second stop on a six-state blitz that took in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Texas.
"If this country shows uncertainty or weakness during these troubled times, the world will drift toward tragedy," he said. "If you believe America should fight the war on terror with all our might and lead with unwavering confidence in our ideals, I ask you to come stand with me."
Kerry, 60, opened with a rally in Florida then took off on a dash through the Midwest battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
"I believe we deserve a president who knows how to fight a more effective war on terror and make America safer," he told supporters.
"This is the choice, this is the moment of accountability for America, and it is the moment that the world is watching what you do," Kerry said.
A Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today, conducted after the broadcast Friday of a videotaped message by Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, showed Kerry cutting Bush's 14-point lead on Iraq to four points and halving a 22-point deficit on terrorism.
The two campaign teams crossed paths at Milwaukee airport, allowing Kerry a glimpse of the presidential jet, Air Force One, that he hopes to claim for his own use next January.
Hundreds of millions of campaign dollars and a months-long avalanche of gloves-off television attack ads have failed to reward either candidate with a breakout lead in the overall White House race, which has divided the country and grabbed the world's attention.
Four of the latest polls called the contest a dead heat, while six others gave Bush a statistically insignificant lead of one to three points. The percentage of undecided voters varied from two to eight points.
With armies of lawyers poised to pounce at any hint of the voting irregularities that tainted the 2000 election, both candidates said it was vital to get an early, definitive result.
"I really think it's important not to have a world of lawsuits that will stop the will of the people from going forward," Bush said in an interview with NBC television.
Kerry said he was confident the election would be decided outside the courts, but added that he had "10,000" lawyers scrutinising the polling process.
"We're not trying to stop anybody from voting. We want to make sure people vote," he told NBC, while chastising Bush for rushing to war in Iraq and blaming him for rising unemployment and health care costs.
But an academic poll, the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, found that only 62 percent of US registered voters trust that their ballots will be accurately counted. Only 40 percent of blacks trusted their votes would be tallied correctly.
Whoever wins on Tuesday faces the enormous challenge of uniting a bitterly partisan and suspicious electorate, as well as mending diplomatic rifts caused by the invasion of Iraq.
In a New York Times poll published Monday, 52 percent of voters said they were "scared" or "concerned" about what Bush would do if re-elected, and 54 percent said the same of a Kerry presidency.
The victor requires a majority of the 538 electoral college votes that decide the presidency and are awarded in separate, mostly winner-take-all races.
The verdict appeared to hinge on the results in Florida and a handful of northern states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Analysts have not ruled out a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the election -- as Democrat Al Gore did in 2000 -- or a 269-269 tie in the electoral college vote that could force Congress to decide the outcome.
Voter turnout Tuesday could be the key factor, with signs that it may be significantly higher than the 106 million who voted in 2000.
Each party said it had one million volunteers to get the vote out by organising election childcare, free lifts and other incentives.