updated 3/5/2004 10:25:06 AM ET 2004-03-05T15:25:06

With Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry now the presumptive Democratic nominee, MSNBC’s White House Derby launches its regularly updated handicapping of the race for the presidency.

Of course, the race has been under way for months with all the Democratic presidential contenders assailing President Bush and with the Republican National Committee sending out regular e-mail daggers at Kerry’s voting record in the Senate.

But this week marks a new beginning for the campaign. For the moment Kerry is out in front, on the strength of several weeks of good news media publicity, a string of primary election wins, and the fact that with the last of his major competitors out of race, Kerry now has both hands free to take on Bush.

Thanks to Kerry’s ads and news media coverage, every likely voter in America must know by now that Kerry served in the Vietnam War and that he dares Bush to “bring it on” for a full-throated debate on the nation’s security.

Each is impugning the national security policies and credentials of the other.

Video: White House Derby “I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the War on Terror; I believe he’s done too little,” Kerry said last week, adding the charge that “George Bush inherited the strongest military in the world — and he has weakened it.”

Kerry pledged that as president he’d add 40,000 active-duty troops to the Army.

Bush returned fire Wednesday in California, saying, “My opponent says he approves of bold action in the world, but only if other countries don't object.”

The president took issue with Kerry’s statement that the war on al-Qaida and other terrorist groups is "far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering, law enforcement operation." He said, “After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers.”

Unless there’s a powerful wave that carries Bush or Kerry to landslide victory, this election will be won state by state, with 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Kerry starts with a base of 217 electoral votes from the states that Al Gore carried in 2000 with 50 percent or more of the vote.

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The states that make up Bush’s base — the ones he carried by 50 percent or more in 2000 —would give him 222 electoral votes.

Part of the job of the Bush team is to turn some of the Gore states from 2000 into tossup states. Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes) immediately comes to mind.

Conversely, Kerry would profit from stealing Louisiana, Arizona or a few other 50 percent-plus states away from Bush.

The effect of maverick candidate Ralph Nader? As yet unknown. Let’s wait to see in how many states Nader’s loyalists are able to get him on the ballot.

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