In an election year in which partisan passions run higher than at any time since perhaps 1980, the fate of the nation increasingly seems to rest with that mysterious small group of citizens known as The Undecided.

Who are these indecisive people, anyway, these islands of uncertainty amidst a sea of rabidly committed advocates, unswayed so far by either events or eight months of campaign rhetoric? Well, apparently four of them are John F. Wolfe, publisher of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Ben Marrison, editor of the Dispatch, Joe Hallet, the paper’s politics editor, and Mary Ann Edwards, a 16-year veteran of the Dispatch’s editorial board.

Editor & Publisher has a fascinating piece today focusing on these few Columbus opinion-makers who will decide sometime this week which candidate to endorse for president — a laying on of the hands that “continues to gain attention nationwide.”

As E&P puts it, with the race for Ohio’s electoral votes tightening, with polls this week declaring a statistical dead heat, “support from the traditionally conservative but now wavering Dispatch could mean the difference in what many consider to be the race’s closest swing state.”

The candidates seem to know that. President Bush offered Wolfe, associate publisher Mike Curtin and the paper’s chief political writer a ride on Air Force One the day before he made his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, detouring from Washington D.C. to Columbus before flying on to New York. And John Kerry, well aware that Al Gore declined to meet with the Dispatch’s editorial board in 2000, made a point of dropping by the Dispatch on Sept. 23. (Gore lost both the endorsement and Ohio’s electoral votes that year.) In addition, political bigfoots from John Edwards to Karl Rove have either phoned or stopped by to chat up Dispatch editorial writers, and Time magazine has called their endorsement “the most coveted in the U.S.”

Locals are also curious. “I can’t go anywhere without someone asking,” Marrison told E&P. “In church, in the grocery store, even at a high school football game. But I honestly don’t know.” Hallet, the politics editor, echoes the thought: “I don’t know who it will be.”

Does anyone? Well, the Dispatch, controlled by Wolfe’s family, has not endorsed a Democrat for president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. On the other hand, some Dispatch editorials sound like something written by a Kerry speechwriter. In a Sept. 11 editorial, it excoriated the Bush administration for failing to capture Osama bin Laden, asking “how did the destruction of bin Laden slip so far down the nation’s to-do list? Why are the bulk of the U.S. military and intelligence assets tied up in Iraq, which posed only a hypothetical threat, while the pursuit of the man who slaughtered thousands of Americans on their own soil is on the back burner?” Then, on Oct. 8, an editorial criticizing both Bush and Kerry accused the president of “sugarcoat[ing] the facts, even as the 140,000-member U.S. force is battling an insurgency,” and asserting that “the decision to invade Iraq was a colossal blunder.”

Stay tuned.

Steve Lovelady

Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.