The electoral road to the White House favors Democrats this fall -- either Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and has Republican John McCain playing defense to thwart a presidential power shift.
A downtrodden economy, the war in Iraq and a public call for change have created an Electoral College outlook and a political environment filled with extraordinary opportunity for the Democrats and enormous challenge for the GOP nominee-in-waiting.
Both parties count on victory in dozens of states that long have voted their way. The competition to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win is expected to play out primarily in 14 states. All but one saw the greatest action in 2004. The exception is Virginia, a longtime Republican stronghold where Democrats have made inroads.
Eight of the states went for President Bush four years ago, including the crown jewels Ohio and Florida. Six, including big-prize Pennsylvania, voted for Democrat John Kerry. In the battlegrounds, far more electoral votes, 97, are up for grabs for Democrats than the 69 available for McCain to go after. Twice as many of the closest states -- decided by 2 or fewer percentage points -- voted Republican in 2004; they include New Mexico and Iowa, which the GOP won by 1 point.
Both sides argue that their candidates can expand the playing field by making more states competitive than in previous elections. But they likely will only spend time and money to test that theory once they feel confident about higher priority states.
McCain: 'Tough campaign'
"This is going to be a tough campaign. I have no illusions how hard we have to work to win," McCain says, a sobering assessment of a Republican's chances when most voters say the country is on the wrong track under a GOP president.
Conversely, Democrats exude confidence that Nov. 4 will break their way -- even as they continue their nomination slugfest.
"I have every reason to believe we're going to have a Democratic president," Clinton argues. Obama declares: "We will beat John McCain in November. You can take that to the bank!"
Recent polls, however, show McCain competing strongly with both Clinton and Obama in hypothetical matchups, and Republicans and Democrats envision a close race.
In 2004, Bush won 286 electoral votes to 251 for Kerry. This year's Democratic nominee must triumph in all the states Kerry won, and pick up 19 more votes to prevail -- or come up with another game plan to reach the magic number. McCain, for his part, must fend off Democratic challenges to hang on to the GOP advantage.
Of the 14 battlegrounds, Bush won eight with 97 electoral votes. Half of those states were decided by only 1 or 2 percentage points, and all were under 10 points. Five have Democratic governors this year. Electoral votes are in parentheses.
Three Western states — Colorado (9), Nevada (5) and New Mexico (5) — appear obvious targets for Democrats given their gains in the region, sharp population growth and large numbers of swing-voting Hispanics. But McCain, a four-term senator from Arizona, does well among those voters, too; his Senate support for an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants could help.
To the east, Iowa (7) holds promise for the Democrats; Republicans narrowly put it into their column in 2004 after years of Democratic dominance. Both Obama and Clinton competed here during the primary. McCain's opposition to ethanol subsidies complicate his chances, nor is he a favorite of evangelicals. Though less likely to change hands, Missouri (11) is a perennial battleground.
McCain also must defend the two vote-rich prizes that decided the past two elections.
Ohio (20), a bellwether that tipped the race to Bush in 2004, may be poised for a switch, with a rash of job losses, high numbers of Iraq casualties and a series of Republican statewide political defeats in 2006, including the governor.
Florida (27), which put Bush in the White House in 2000 and voted for him again in 2004, will certainly be hard-fought, given its electoral treasure chest. Its demographics are tilting more Republican, though, and Obama has fared poorly in the primaries among Jewish and Hispanic voters. Clinton may have a better shot.
Virginia (13) is a case where Obama, who is black, might play stronger than Clinton because of the state's large black population. The state moves into the competitive category given Democratic gains fueled by the growing Washington suburbs. Virginia also is home to large communities of military veterans who may have an affinity for McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Kerry won six of the hard-fought states offering 69 electoral votes that McCain will try to put in the GOP column. All of those were decided by under 5 percentage points. Most have Democratic governors as well as long histories as swing states.
In the upper Midwest, Minnesota (10) has a quirky independent streak that presents an opening for McCain. It also has a Republican governor and will host the GOP's national convention. Wisconsin (10) and Michigan (17) have high numbers of Reagan Democrats that McCain could attract. But voters in all three states are reeling from economic woes, and that works in the Democrats' favor.
New Hampshire (4) fell to Kerry by a razor-thin margin four years ago and, Democrats captured two House seats two years later. But McCain has a close bond with the state that made him in his first presidential primary in 2000, and saved him this year.
It's been 20 years since Pennsylvania (21) voted Republican. Further complicating McCain's chances: The state's economy is bad and many Pennsylvanians have died in Iraq, the war he staunchly supports. Still, conservative swaths that are home to right-leaning Democrats could give McCain an opening. As usual, the Philadelphia suburbs figure to be pivotal.
Oregon (7) has become more competitive in recent elections, but Democrats have won it in each of the last five. McCain hopes his moderate image and support for curbing climate change will tip the state to Republicans.
Beyond the core states, several others are worth watching.
If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Arkansas (6) will certainly be contested. It has voted Republican in back-to-back elections but her husband, a former governor there, carried it twice. West Virginia (5), too, could be a target given that Bill Clinton won it twice and it's home to a large number of the working-class voters she attracts.
Should Obama be the nominee, Democrats say they hope to put solid Southern GOP states in play, those with large black populations. Among them: North Carolina (15) and Georgia (15), and possibly even Louisiana (9) and Mississippi (6). But these are unlikely targets unless the Democrats think the election is in hand.
Democrats also say they may look at Montana (3), which has a Democratic governor, and Kentucky (8), which twice voted for Bill Clinton. But they're also long-shots.
McCain should hold his home state of Arizona (10) despite Democratic threats to play there. He sees potential opportunities in Democratic-leaning states on both coasts because of his appeal to voters across the political spectrum. These include Washington (11) and Maine (4), and, perhaps, even New Jersey (15) and Delaware (3). McCain also talks big about California (55) but the last Republican to win there was George H.W. Bush in 1988.