With under 50 days remaining in the presidential campaign, George Bush and John Kerry are vying for votes in the dwindling number of battleground states where the outcome is likely to be decided.
The decisions each campaign makes about which states to contest — and which to pull precious resources out of — are now at a critical point, particularly for John Kerry.
Show Me, or Not
Too much has been made of George Bush’s 14 point lead in Missouri, and what looks like a decision by the Kerry campaign to not spend further resources there, essentially throwing in the towel and giving up on hopes of carrying the state.
The fact is that picking up Missouri was always a distant hope for the Kerry campaign, and not one they put much stock in from the beginning. Most strategists for the Democrats felt it would be a stretch to win Missouri even if Rep. Dick Gephardt, a "Show Me homey," had been on the ticket with Kerry. The long-shot math of the Missouri was one of the reasons Kerry did not pick Gephardt as his running mate in the first place.
The Kerry camp did hope to expand the battlefield to Missouri when they were riding high, if only to force Bush to have to expend resources in a state that should have been safely in his column. The fact that Missouri now looks safe for George Bush just means the Kerry gambit didn’t work. No harm, no foul.
Eat Cheese or Die
In Wisconsin, a state that really matters to both campaigns, Kerry cannot simply shrug his shoulders.
New poll numbers from "America's Dairyland" this week show Bush has milked a small advantage into an 8 point lead over Kerry. Wisconsin is a state that voted for Al Gore in the last presidential election, and that Democrats have been expecting to carry the state in this election.
Wisconsin is a must win state for Kerry.
The problem for John Kerry now is not just winning Wisconsin – it’s bigger than that. The problem is that spending time and resources to win Wisconsin will mean less time and fewer resources for other battleground states such as Ohio, where Kerry is down by 8 points, Florida, where Kerry is down by 4 points, and Pennsylvania, where Kerry is down by only 1 (statistically insignificant) point.
The finger in the dike problem
John Kerry's headache is George W. Bush's opportunity. As Kerry spends less time in Ohio to shore up Wisconsin, Bush can afford to spend more time in Ohio. As Kerry spends fewer campaign dollars in Florida, Bush can afford to spend more there.
From this point forward, as the number of battleground states dwindles further, the Bush campaign can put more and more resources into the remaining states, while Kerry has to compete in each of the remaining states and fight to carry Wisconsin. If Bush’s lead were to expand in Ohio, for example, the problem for Kerry becomes exponential.
Message and media still matter greatly in this election, but only where the two campaigns choose to fight in the final days of this contest. Well below the debate, the sound bites, the talking heads, and the paid media campaign – underneath it all -- a tactical struggle is taking place that will decide this election.
It’s all still very close, but for now the Bush campaign has the tactical advantage.
Comment? E-mail JTrippi@MSNBC.com
Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, is an MSNBC contributor and a political analyst for "Hardball with Chris Matthews." He's contributes to Hardball's "Hardblogger," weblog, and is author of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything."