PHILADELPHIA – There are many countries where no politicking is allowed the day before an election.

This is not one of them.

As a result, the final hours of the presidential marathon have become the occasion for one last, round-the-clock blitz of key states – sometimes closing with events after midnight and before dawn.

This year, the candidates will be taking it relatively easy, at least compared to some campaigns past.

Democrat John Kerry – after spending Sunday in New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida – was set to make only three appearances Monday, all in the same part of the country, with rallies in the industrial, Midwestern cities of Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland. But he won’t be going home after that. He has an early-morning event planned for Tuesday in Wisconsin.

President Bush, who was in Florida and Ohio Sunday, has a far more grueling journey planned Monday. He’ll start in Ohio, go to western Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then make two stops in Iowa and one in New Mexico before winding up with a late-night rally in Dallas, his seventh event of the day.

Those schedules, the comparative pace aside, tell you a number of things about how strategists for the two camps see the political landscape on the eve of the election:

Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa have emerged as the top battlegrounds this year.

Bush and the Republicans still have hopes of carrying Pennsylvania; otherwise, the president wouldn’t be coming back here for the 44th time. Taking the state would make it virtually impossible for Kerry to win the presidency.

Kerry remains nervous about Michigan, a state thought to be solidly in his column a few weeks ago but where the polls now show a very tight contest.

And neither side sees any point in following the example of past candidates in making a show of campaigning all through the night.

Whether these final-day dashes perform any useful function – other than to deprive each candidate of what is left of his voice – is far from clear.

Some campaign strategists in individual states actually consider a final-day visit an unwelcome distraction. Their theory is that staff and volunteer time would be better spent getting out the vote than staging one last rally.

But it’s hard to convince a candidate to move at anything other than breakneck speed in the final hours. No defeated politician wants to be thinking the day after that the result might have been different had he made just one more stop.

The tradition of late-campaign travel madness dates back at least as far as 1960.

That year, Republican Richard M. Nixon closed his campaign with a 7,170-mile, 36-hour trip that started in Los Angeles on the final Sunday afternoon. He made stops in Alaska (he’d promised to get to all 50 states), Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois before returning to California.

Democrat John F. Kennedy, who defeated Nixon in 1960, kept up a similar pace but covered far shorter distances. His final 48-hour itinerary: Waterbury, Wallingford, New Haven, Bridgeport, all in Connecticut; Suffolk County, N.Y.; Teaneck, Jersey City and Newark, N.J.; Lewiston, Me.; Providence, R.I.; Springfield, Mass; Hartford, Conn.; Burlington, Vt.; Manchester, N.H.; and finally Boston.

Both men were pretty much done, though, by midnight Monday. The first candidate to keep going into Tuesday morning was Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, who, after a rally in Los Angeles late Monday night, had a pre-dawn event in Iowa, and a morning one in Detroit before going home to Boston.

Dukakis still got beaten badly by George H.W. Bush, whose more leisurely final day covered three Midwestern states and a closing rally in Houston.

Bill Clinton started the final day of his successful 1992 campaign at the Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia before embarking on a 30-hour, nine-city, 4,100-mile marathon that included post-midnight events in McAllen and Fort Worth, Texas, and Denver before ending in Little Rock.

In 2000, Gore began in Iowa, then journeyed to Missouri and made two stops in Michigan before flying to Florida. There, he attended a star-studded, 12:30 a.m. rally in Miami and addressed campaign workers in Tampa at 4 a.m.

As it turned out, of course, Gore lost Florida anyway, albeit by the slimmest of margins and in the strangest manner possible.

Perhaps that’s why both Kerry and Bush have decided to get at least a few hours sleep on the night before Election Day. They know that Election Night could last for a month.

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-31-04 1835EST

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