Chicago — Midwestern voters are being courted by presidential candidates with a rare intensity these days. In the swath of states from the Dakotas to Ohio, only the westermost fringe is considered sure Reagan territory. And only Minnesota has been cordoned off as secure Mondale country.
The rest of the nation's heartland is rapidly turning into a prime battleground in the winner-take-all struggle between GOP incumbent Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale for each state's electoral votes.
Any voter not yet registered in the turf up for grabs is invited three times over to join up. "I've never seen so many registration programs. It seems as if everybody's become a deputy registrar," says Ohio Republican State Committee director Norm Cummings.
And Midwestern voters are beginning to notice a veritable blitz of candidates , their loved ones, or surrogates making a pitch for votes from every available regional podium.
President Reagan has stopped in Illinois three times in the last three weeks. Vice-President George Bush was in the state on Labor Day and returns for a three-day stint later this month.
And just this week, on the Democratic side, Mr. Mondale has been in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa while vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro made a swing through Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
John Buckley, deputy press secretary of the Reagan-Bush campaign, says the GOP candidates will "periodically" visit the West and South, where Reagan's support is considered strongest, but make "frequent" stops in the Midwest, "which should be Mondale territory but isn't."
And Scott Widmeyer, deputy press secretary of the Mondale-Ferraro campaign, says the two candidates or their representatives will visit the Great Lakes states, where Democratic staffing and financing is strongest, on at least a weekly basis.
The biggest stakes -- more than 20 electoral votes each -- lie with Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Indiana, Wisconsin, and Missouri -- with about half as many votes each -- are next.
Polls show Reagan still ahead in most Midwestern states. In a few, including Missouri and Ohio, he is far ahead; but his lead has narrowed in Illinois and Michigan.
The large number of undecided voters in the Midwest and belated arrival of the economic recovery in parts of the region have kept GOP leaders from becoming overconfident.
The woes of normally conservative Midwestern farmers, burdened by high interest rates, heavy debt, and low crop prices, are of particular concern.Just last month Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins conceded that the Midwestern farm belt was the President's "weakest" region.
"I think we've struck a new chord with farmers. We expect them to be one of our best support bases," says Mondale-Ferraro campaign spokesman Widmeyer.
"Farmers are an easy constituency to lose if things aren't going well. They very definitely vote their pocketbooks," says Illinois Reagan-Bush Committee spokesman Ed Murnane. Admitting that the President may not do nearly as well this time in such economically hardpressed communities as Peoria, Decatur, and Springfield, he says, "Downstate will be difficult this year."
In normally Republican South Dakota a recent straw bellot taken at the State Fair by the South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) gave Mondale a lead of 8 points. A similar poll four years ago gave Reagan a 14-point lead. "I wouldn't for a moment say Reagan isn't going to carry South Dakota, but maybe it's a warning not to take anything for granted," says SDFU spokesman Chuck Groth. "Farmers are certainly one group that can't . . . say they're better off than four years ago. If Reagan has any farm support, it's on some other issue than agriculture."
But in nearby Iowa, where farming affects the business of most cities in a large way, Republican State Central Committee chairman Rolf Craft says he sees no signs of a "wholesale" farm-vote shift to the Democrats. "The state may not be booming economically, but the Democrats just aren't attractive to a lot of farmers and Iowans in general," he says. "They see Mondale as a dull, tax-and-spend candidate. The Democrats are talking about a 1948, but Mondale isn't a Harry Truman. . . . I talked to one farmer the other day who said, 'Reagan is bankrupting me but I can't vote for Mondale.' . . . I think we may get a low turnout."
The GOP continues to work hard in the Midwest as elsewhere to try to keep its 1980 coalition of traditional Republicans, ethnic voters, and blue-collar workers intact.
Reagan-Bush campaign spokesman Buckley says that a variety of polling data, not just from Republican sources, indicate that Reagan is seen as the more effective candidate in creating new jobs. And GOP polls, he says, show Reagan running about 5 percent stronger than in 1980 with labor union households.
Mondale-Ferraro spokesman Widmeyer counters that the Democrats have been getting "very good feedback" from blue-collar voters who dislike Reagan tax policies and view Mondale as more fair and compassionate. "I think you'll see a different trend this time," he says.
Both parties are making major registration efforts in the Midwest which may well affect the results.