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Upper Midwest key in presidential race

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The next president could have upper Midwest voters to thank.

For all of the attention blockbuster battleground states such as Ohio receive in the presidential contest, a handful of upper Midwestern states together may have just as big a role in determining whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama wins the White House in November.

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These states are important for their Electoral College bounty and toss-up status. Collectively, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have 27 electoral votes - as many or more than have the big swing states of Pennsylvania and Florida.

"I think the upper Midwest is one of the keys to this election," said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, pondering the fall election from a chair in his Senate office. North Dakota voters have favored Republicans in the last 10 presidential contests, but some believe even that state's three electoral votes could be up for grabs this year.

Minnesota and Wisconsin share a long tradition of voting Democratic in presidential elections, but both are viewed as key battleground states. Victory margins in both states were narrow in 2000 and 2004, particularly in Wisconsin.

That reputation was bolstered by the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, showing McCain had considerably narrowed Obama's lead in Minnesota to just 2 points; a similar poll conducted a month ago showed the Democrat ahead by 17 points. Obama still leads Wisconsin by double digits.

Quinnipiac is teaming with the Wall Street Journal and washingtonpost.com to poll monthly in four battleground states -- including Minnesota and Wisconsin --leading up to the election.

"Sen. Barack Obama's post-primary bubble hasn't burst, but it is leaking a bit," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "It's been a good month for Sen. John McCain. His movement in these key states, not large except for Minnesota, jibes with the tightening we are seeing in the national polls."

Experts are quick to say polls offer only a snapshot; much can change between now and Nov. 4. That includes the effect of the Republican National Convention in early September on Minnesota voter preference.

"One of the great unknown quantities is going to be the convention," said Michael Bath, a political scientist at Concordia College in Moorhead. "Given that the convention is going to be located in St. Paul their hope, I think, is to have some sort of bounce."

Four years ago the closest outcome in the country was in Wisconsin, where Sen. John Kerry beat President Bush by less than half a percentage point. Both Obama and McCain are treating the state as competitive again this year. McCain recently drew an audience of about 800 to a campaign event in Hudson, Wis., about 20 miles east of St. Paul. While there he emphasized the region's importance, saying he will be back to Wisconsin and Minnesota "again and again and again." Both states have 10 electoral votes.

Sitting in his Capitol Hill office, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents parts of western Wisconsin, said he believes there is more support among his constituents for Obama than there was for Kerry four years ago.

"Certainly (in 2004) we weren't looking at the conditions we are today, and they're dire," Kind said of how economic issues could convince Wisconsin voters to pick Obama over McCain. "I'd be surprised if Sen. Obama doesn't carry Wisconsin by double digits."

The upper Midwest could help Obama make up for losses in other swing states, should some polls showing him trailing in those states hold true, said Dee Davis, president of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, which conducts presidential polls in rural America.

"The math's the math. Right now the Democrats have a couple of problems in places they didn't expect to have problems," Davis said, referring to Ohio and Pennsylvania. "So for the Democrats to get Iowa back and to hold onto Wisconsin and Minnesota are important."

Obama is surprising even Democrats with the amount of attention he is paying to North Dakota. In recent months the Illinois senator has appeared twice in the state and is expanding his campaign presence there -- tactics thought part of a nationwide strategy to force McCain to defend states presumed safe for the Republican.

Davis said Obama's presence in North Dakota also could be indicative of a departure from previous Democratic presidential campaigns, which failed to win over rural voters.

"Democrats are beginning to question their rural approach because it's been a loser," he said. "Part of showing up is not just whether he wins North Dakota. It's to show that he can be the president of everybody."

A Rasmussen Poll released in early July showed Obama and McCain tied at 43-43. Some said North Dakota could be an election barometer Nov. 4.

"If North Dakota's in play, Barack Obama is not only the next president of the United States, but by a very, very comfortable margin," Brown, the Quinnipiac pollster, said when the university's first battleground state polls were released last month at the National Press Club in Washington.

During his recent campaign swing through the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, McCain acknowledged he needs to stump a little farther west -- in North Dakota and South Dakota.

"These elections lately have been so tight that even a little state like North Dakota can't be taken for granted," said Bath, the Concordia College professor.

Iowa, too, is a key upper Midwest battleground. President Bush won that state narrowly in 2004, after Democrat Al Gore claimed Iowa in 2000, but both Bush and Gore won that state by less than one percentage point. Also, Iowa was the site of Obama's first primary season victory.

"Iowa's a state that I think almost everybody thinks is the most likely Democratic pick-up of all the states," Brown said.

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