The outcome of the presidential election may not depend on George W. Bush or John Kerry -- or even on an October surprise. It may come down to John F. Wolfe.

Wolfe, the publisher of The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, will ultimately decide who that paper backs for president, an endorsement that continues to gain attention nationwide.

And as the race for Ohio's 20 electoral votes tightens -- with a number of polls this week declaring a statistical dead heat -- support from the tradionally conservative but now wavering Dispatch could mean the difference in what many consider to be the race's closest swing state.

"Our endorsement is up for grabs," Editor Ben Marrison, the paper's editor since 1999 and a member of the editorial board, told E&P Wednesday. "It has become a jump-ball."

The paper is owned by Dispatch Printing Co., controlled by the Wolfe family.

The undecided endorsement is significant given that the Dispatch has not endorsed a Democrat for president since it backed Woodrow Wilson in 1916, editors said. Just the fact that the paper is strongly considering a Kerry endorsement is rather startling.

"We're hot," said Joe Hallett, Dispatch politics editor. "I don't know who it will be, but there are staffers here on both sides."

The editorial board, E&P has learned, has yet to meet and decide on an endorsement but is planning to discuss it later this week for a likely Sunday publication. But several sources contend the choice will be made by Wolfe, who is out of town this week but has made it known that he is wavering in his Bush support.

"If you looked at our editorials over the past four years, it might look like we are not very happy with the president," said Mary Ann Edwards, an editorial writer and 16-year board member, offering a tantalizing (but perhaps misleading) hint. Editor Marrison agreed, adding, "They have been very critical of Bush."

One recent example was a Sept. 11 editorial slamming Bush for failing to capture Osama bin Laden that asked, "how did the destruction of bin Laden slip so far down the nation's to-do list? Why are the bulk of 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?"

More recently, an Oct. 8 editorial criticizing both Bush and Kerry accused the president of continuing "to sugarcoat the facts, even as the 140,000-member U.S. force is battling an insurgency," adding that "the decision to invade Iraq was a colossal blunder."

The Dispatch's endorsement weight is apparent to both candidates, who have made major overtures to the paper in an effort to gain the coveted support.

Bush met with Wolfe, Associate Publisher Mike Curtin, and the paper's chief political writer on Air Force One the day before he made his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention last month. The three Dispatch representatives flew with Bush from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, where the president dropped them off before flying on to New York.

Kerry, meanwhile, met with the editorial board on Sept. 23, Marrison said, noting that Al Gore declined to meet with them in 2000. Gore ended up losing both the endorsement and Ohio's 20 electoral votes.

In addition, a number of high-ranking Democrats and Republicans -- ranging from Karl Rove to John Edwards - have either phoned or stopped by the Dispatch's offices. The endorsement has drawn interest from numerous readers, as well as a number of national news outlets, including CNN, C-SPAN, and Time magazine.

"The most coveted newspaper endorsement in the U.S. ... is due from the editors of the Columbus Dispatch," Time declared Monday. "Both campaigns have spent countless hours and dollars trying to snare it."

Local readers also have inquired about the endorsement more than ever, editors said. "I can't go anywhere without someone asking. It's pretty crazy. It has never been like this," Marrison, the paper's editor, said. "In church, in the grocery store, even at a high school football game. But I honestly don?t know."

Ohio's other major dailies also have been under increased scrutiny as their endorsements loom. Neither The Cincinnati Enquirer nor The Plain Dealer of Cleveland have endorsed for president, although both are expected to offer up their choices this weekend.

The Plain Dealer endorsed Bush in 2000, but also backed Bill Clinton both times he ran, indicating its endorsement is not a sure thing for either party. "It doesn't put a lot of pressure on me," said editorial page editor Brent Larkin, who acknowledged the paper's choice may only "change 200 minds" since "people don't need us to tell them who to vote for."

The Enquirer's history of backing Republicans is not expected to change, although associate editorial page editor Byron McCauley is making no predictions. Still, he admits the impact is likely more significant given this year's close statewide polling.

"I think it still carries some significant weight in readers' minds," McCauley said. "There is a very thin margin of people that you are going to try to convince."