Bush holds lean electoral vote lead

Sunday, July 25, 2004

BOSTON -- John Kerry narrowly trails President Bush in the battle for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, as he makes his case at the Democratic National Convention this week to topple the Republican incumbent.

Tall hurdles remain in his path, including Electoral College math that favors Bush.

"It's a tough, tough map. I think it's going to be a close race," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who helped plot Al Gore's state-by-state strategy in 2000 and plays the same role for Kerry.

"But looking back four years, we're much stronger now. I think we're going into this convention in great shape," he said.

With three months remaining in a volatile campaign, Kerry has 14 states and the District of Columbia in his column for 193 electoral votes. Bush has 25 states for 217 votes, according to an Associated Press analysis of state polls as well as interviews with strategists across the country.

Both candidates are short of the magic 270 electoral votes. The margin of victory will come from:

Tossups: Bush and Kerry are running even in 11 states with a combined 128 electoral votes. Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia are the toughest battlegrounds. Two other tossups, Pennsylvania and Oregon, could soon move to Kerry's column.

Leaning to Kerry: Maine, Minnesota and Washington (a combined 25 electoral votes) favor Kerry over Bush by a few percentage points. Gore carried them in 2000.

Leaning to Bush: North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Arizona, Virginia, Arkansas and Missouri (a combined 73 electoral votes) give Bush modest leads. He won all seven in 2000.

Missouri, a traditional battleground, recently moved to the Bush-leaning category and is being written off by some Democrats. The Kerry campaign reduced its ad campaign in the state after polls showed him consistently 4 percent to 6 percent behind Bush, with little room for improvement.

Republican advantages in rural Missouri and the fast-growing exurbs make the state tough for Democrats, but Kerry will likely keep it on the table through November in case the political winds shift. Besides, abandoning a traditional battleground would be embarrassing.

One to spare

Four years ago, Bush won 30 states and their 271 electoral votes -- one more than needed. Gore, who won the popular vote, claimed 20 states plus the District of Columbia for 267 electoral votes.

Since then, reapportionment added electoral votes to states with population gains and took them from states losing people. The result: Bush's states are now worth 278 electoral votes and Gore's are worth just 260.

Even if Kerry consolidates Gore's states, no easy task, the Democrat must take 10 electoral votes from Bush's column to close the electoral vote gap.

Kerry's best prospects may be in the five tossup states won by Bush in 2000: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and West Virginia.

Winning either Ohio's 20 electoral votes or Florida's 27 would do the trick.

Bush easily won Ohio in 2000, but its lagging economy puts the state in play. Kerry must still reduce Bush's advantages among conservative, rural voters. Florida should favor Bush a bit more than in 2000, partly because of its relatively strong economy, but the war in Iraq has helped keep the race close.

Nevada and West Virginia have a combined 10 electoral votes, enough to close the gap. New Hampshire, which neighbors Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, has four.

West Virginia voted Democratic for decades until Bush made values an issue in 2000; Kerry is stressing the theme this year. In Nevada, an influx of Hispanics and the administration's push to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site make the state tougher for Bush than in 2000.

Six of the 11 tossup states were won by Gore: Pennsylvania, Oregon, Michigan, Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin. But the margin of victory was just a few thousand votes in Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin -- meaning Kerry has his work cut out to keep them.

Of the three, Bush likes his chances best in Wisconsin, where he is targeting rural voters in a bid to widen the electoral gap by 10 votes.

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