updated 9/4/2004 10:41:56 PM ET 2004-09-05T02:41:56

In a seesaw campaign, President Bush has opened a lead over John Kerry in their drive to White House victory by making gains in the Midwest and solidifying his Southern base.

The race is spread over 19 states, with the fiercest competition in Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, according to state polls and interviews with strategists in both parties.

Two months before Election Day, the president has 20 states firmly in his column and eight leaning his way, for a total of 237 electoral votes. It takes 270 to win the White House.

The Democratic challenger has 11 states plus the District of Columbia in hand, with five states leaning his way. That puts Kerry at 211 electoral votes.

Just two weeks ago, state polling was breaking toward Kerry on the heels of the Democratic convention in Boston. Surveys had shown him opening narrow leads in Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and a few other hotly contested states. Campaign aides talked of an electoral cruise.

Expectations were raised, which is dangerous when voters are so evenly divided.

In Kerry's case, his fortunes reversed when the Republican-leaning Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aired an ad in early August accusing the Vietnam war hero of exaggerating his combat record.

Kerry belatedly condemned the claims, only after the campaign stir made an issue of his credibility and led to questions about his anti-war activities 33 years ago. By the time Bush's nominating convention began in New York, Kerry had lost the advantage he had coming out of Boston a month ago.

That gave Bush a huge opportunity with a convention script pitched to moderate voters and reminders at every turn of the president's leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks. Two polls released after the convention, which ended Thursday, gave Bush a double-digit lead nationwide.

Some Democrats were demanding changes in the Kerry campaign, saying the incumbent was threatening to put the race away. Others urged calm, knowing it would fall on deaf ears.

"If we as a party all agree not to panic, these polls will not be enormously important," said Jim Jordan, who faced his share of party angst as Kerry's first campaign manager. "In the seven or eight states where this thing is going to be decided, I can promise you there are no double-digit leads."

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He appears to be right, though it will take another week to determine whether the president got a boost in the battlegrounds from the convention _ in what states, and for how long.

According to the AP analysis, Bush made small but significant gains even before the convention "bounce" became part of the equation.

While the Swift boat flap turned the debate away from the ailing economy and the Iraq war, the political landscape shifted just enough in Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Nevada to nudge those states from the "tossup" category to "lean-Bush."

Three states moved from lean-Kerry to tossup _ Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

Virginia and Louisiana shifted from lean-Bush to solid Bush, with Kerry virtually abandoning efforts to expand the playing field deep into the South. Arkansas and North Carolina, home of Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, remain marginally in play.

The most ominous changes for Kerry are Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, two states with a combined 31 electoral votes that Democrat Al Gore won four years ago. They are the president's top targets for a pickup.

Ohio and Florida, with a combined 47 electoral votes, were won by Bush in 2000 and are Kerry's best pickup opportunities on Nov. 2. Both are in the tossup category, narrowly so.

Because of population shifts that added electoral votes to GOP states since 2000, Kerry can reclaim every state won by Gore and still fall 10 electoral votes short of 270.

Judging by the up-and-down history of this race, Kerry can still recoup his lost ground. Indeed, the political map today is within a few electoral votes of where it stood in mid-July, just before Kerry's convention, when an AP analysis had Bush ahead 217-193.

But Kerry focused his convention almost exclusively on his Vietnam War record. The strategy temporarily narrowed Bush's advantages on national security and who would make the best commander in chief. Then came attacks on his Vietnam record, which dominated the political debate for most of August.

As he opened the fall campaign by criticizing Bush's economic record, Kerry said Friday, "The president wants you to re-elect him? For what?"

Voters will be asking a similar question: You want us to send an incumbent president into early retirement. For what? Their answer will determine who wins this volatile race.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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