While the overall election tally in the presidential race of 2000 was razor thin, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just over 20 percentage points in rural parts of the country. “The encouraging thing is we are running much stronger with rural voters today than we were four years ago,” says John Norris of Ames, a long-time Iowa political operative who ran John Kerry’s Iowa Caucus campaign. He’s now working on Kerry’s nationwide campaign, charting ways to capture more rural votes. Norris says recent polling shows Kerry has gained ground in rural areas, and now trails President Bush by just 9 percentage points. That would mean Kerry has made up over half of the rural ground Gore lost in 2000. Norris, a former aide to Governor Vilsack and Congressman Boswell, says surveys show rural voters are interested in more than a candidates’ stand on price supports. Norris says unfortunately, there aren’t as many full-time farmers living in rural America, and that means rural residents are interested in affordable health care, accessible education and good jobs. He says Kerry has “made a real shift” in how he talks to rural voters. Norris and other Kerry operatives also plan new ways to connect the campaign with voters, especially those in rural areas. They’re holding community meetings, like the more than 70 scheduled around the state tonight that’ll let Kerry backers gather together to watch Kerry deliver his big speech. Norris is telling his field staff to invite people to these and other campaign meetings who aren’t traditionally involved in politics. Norris says it’s just one more way to “bring more people into the dialogue.” Not only are rural votes key in states like Iowa, but swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania have huge rural sectors that Norris says could swing the entire state in Kerry’s tally. Norris says the rural vote “could very well prove to be the difference in this election.” Candidate Kerry arrived at this convention by boat yesterday flanked by his Navy crewmates from Vietnam, including Iowan Gene Thorson. The pool reporter on the boat ride says Thorson and another mate were in the back of the boat having a smoke when Kerry went back to call them forward for a picture.