The computers are still buggy, but the phones are finally working at John McCain's regional headquarters in an office suite in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood.

Barack Obama's campaign hasn't opened its Minnesota office yet, but nearly every weekend it holds as many as a half-dozen events across the state, ranging from voter registration drives to volunteers walking local parades, handing out literature and waving signs.

Nearly five months before the election, the presidential campaigns of McCain and Obama are gearing up in Minnesota, a sign that the state is likely once again to be a battleground in November.

Obama was just here, McCain's on his way later this week, ads have started to air and the campaigns are firming up their front lines.

For decades, Minnesota was so reliably Democratic in presidential elections that both parties decided there was little point in spending time and money here.

That abruptly changed after the 2000 election, when George W. Bush came surprisingly close to winning the state.

McCain's campaign has gotten a logistical leg up on Obama's by being the first to open its Minnesota office, hiring as many as 10 workers, while running the first general election ad on TV stations here and in 10 other battleground states.

"That shows we're targeting the state and are serious about Minnesota," said Ben Golnik, the campaign's Midwest coordinator.

The candidates' presence is another indication of their focus on Minnesota. Obama has held three mega-rallies in the state, most recently in St. Paul the night he clinched the Democratic nomination.

McCain plans to stage his first big appearance Thursday with a town hall meeting before a big-dollar fundraiser.

Up until now, Obama's Minnesota campaign had been more robust than McCain's, having built a formidable grass-roots operation in the run-up to the Feb. 5 caucuses, which he overwhelmingly won. McCain, who expended little effort in the state, finished second in the GOP's caucuses.

But now both campaigns are rolling up their sleeves.

"The McCain people will contest Minnesota because they think they have a real shot at winning," said Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman who has become a GOP eminence. "The state still tilts a little bit bluer than I'd like it to be, but in any given cycle, either party can do well."

Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democratic operative who ran John Kerry's get-out-the-vote operation in Minnesota, said the state "will be one of the ground-zero states and can't be taken for granted because to win in November, we have to win Minnesota."

Fight for 'burbs, independents

Weber, Blodgett and other veterans of past presidential campaigns generally agree on the geographic and policy battlefields where the Minnesota campaign will be fought.

Obama starts with presumed overwhelming strength in the Democratic strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Iron Range; McCain's initial strength lies in the state's exurban and agricultural areas. That will leave the suburbs as the likely site of a win-or-lose showdown.

McCain, political strategists said, is likely to stress his tax-cutting agenda and social issues, embracing cultural values such as religion and guns, which Obama controversially said "bitter" voters cling to.

For his part, Obama will lean heavily on his plans to right a listing national economy.

Ironically, the war in Iraq, once the dominant issue, is less likely to be emphasized. The two candidates' positions are so starkly opposed that voters who have firmly made up their minds on that issue aren't persuadable to switch sides.

And campaign veterans said that given the current state of party identification, political independents will be the key in November. More Minnesotans call themselves Democrats than Republicans, but self-described independents outnumber both.

"Where the rubber hits the road will be those independents," said Hubert Humphrey IV, who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign in Minnesota. "Both of these candidates are seen as somewhat populist, and Minnesotans, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, are attracted to populists."

State's voting history

"This huge independent presence is disconnected from both parties, but particularly from the party in power," Weber said. "A couple of things will make it tougher for Republicans in Minnesota this year. Historically, Minnesotans have voted against the party in power. And I think the war is even more unpopular here than it is elsewhere."

In fact, while both campaigns approach Minnesota as winnable, its voting history suggests that the GOP faces the steeper challenge. Just last weekend, Gov. Tim Pawlenty would go no further than to call Minnesota "a state that has transitioned from kind of deep blue or Democrat to competitive."

Victory margins tighter

Since 1972, the last time a Republican presidential candidate won the state, Democratic candidates' once-yawning victory margins have tightened, but remain relatively comfortable.

Despite Republicans' aggressive push in 2000 and 2004, Gore won by 2.4 percentage points and Kerry by 3.4 percentage points.

Early indications show Obama with an edge over McCain.

DFL caucus turnout was far larger than turnout at the Republican caucuses. Obama has raised three times as much money from Minnesotans.

The Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll last month showed Obama ahead by 13 percentage points, and other statewide polls have shown him with large leads.

"It may be that 2000 was the nadir for Democrats here," said longtime GOP strategist Sarah Janacek. "There's no question the glamour's on the Democratic side this year and a lot of Republicans are pretty uninspired."

Even so, Minnesota will be hotly contested, if only because it is part of a battleground region.

"If [as Republicans] you don't put Minnesota in play," Janacek said, "you're putting yourself at risk in other states -- like Wisconsin and Iowa, which are so much tighter."

"Both parties know [states in the Upper Midwest] could swing either way, so the entire region's up for grabs," said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who has closely analyzed the Midwest's impact on presidential elections. "We're going to get a lot of attention from both."

Come September, McCain is widely expected to get a boost in the state when the Republican National Convention is staged in St. Paul.

"It's not insignificant that the convention will be here because it will be a chance for the party to talk directly to voters in Minnesota," Blodgett said. "If they do it right, and successfully paint McCain as a maverick, that will help them."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184