Candidates claw for battleground prizes

President Bush Campaigns In Florida
Bush greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday. Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, the White House race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry has come down to a fight for about 10 states — with Florida and Ohio topping the battlegrounds.

The candidates and their running mates are making that abundantly clear this week, shuttling among those two electoral prizes and a number of other hotly contested states as they bicker over the shortage of flu vaccine, Social Security and other issues.
A series of new national polls – including the latest one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal — show that, by every measure, the race is too close to call.

Indeed, the battle for the 270 electoral votes needed for Bush or Kerry to claim the White House could turn on local factors like the turnout among black voters in Florida, union members in Ohio, the weather or a host of other factors. Kerry and Bush each have meaningful leads in states worth more than 200 electoral votes, by NBC’s reckoning, leaving the bitter rivals to wrestle over fewer than 110 electoral votes in a shrinking field of tossup states.

Florida and Ohio, with a combined 47 electoral votes, top the list of swing states, with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Minnesota right behind. Some analysts include Colorado as well.

“As we found in 2000, a presidential race is decided in the states,” said Matthew Streb, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “And right now, we’re looking at five to eight states that are going to decide this election.”

In 2000, Bush earned fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore but narrowly won the Electoral College, highlighting the importance of state-by-state results. Typically, Electoral College votes go to the winner of each state.

This year, Bush begins the 2004 race with an electoral head start. Because of population shifts recorded in the last census, the 30 states Bush won in 2000 are now worth seven more electoral votes, giving him a base of 278. The states won by Democrat Al Gore are now worth 260 electoral votes.

The close race has led to boundless possibilities. A switch of a state or two from one column to another could result in easy wins for Bush or Kerry — or a deadlocked 269-269 electoral race that would be decided by the Republican-led House of Representatives.

To claim the White House, Kerry likely will need victories in at least one of two big states that Bush won in 2000 — Florida, with 27 electoral votes, and Ohio, with 20 electoral votes. Both states are dead heats, according to recent polls.

The third big prize, Pennsylvania with 21 electoral votes, was won by Gore in 2000 and appears to be slightly leaning to Kerry, but is still up for grabs.

Whoever wins two of the big three will have a huge advantage. Anyone who sweeps the three can probably book a ticket to the White House.

Independent pollster Dick Bennett of American Research Group said that just like in 2000 the road to the White House goes through Florida — particularly for the senator from Massachusetts.

Bush could lose either Ohio or Florida and still win the election by picking up states he narrowly lost last time — like Wisconsin, where polls show the race is a dead heat, and Minnesota, where polls show Kerry with a slight lead. They have a combined 20 electoral votes, same as Ohio.

“For Bush, a win in Florida probably puts him over the top,” Bennett said. “But there are a lot of other ways he can get there — he has more options than Kerry.”

Both campaigns envisioned a presidential battlefield of 20 or more states earlier this year but have seen their options steadily narrow, with states like Arizona, Missouri, West Virginia and literally all of the South outside Florida drifting back into the fold for Bush.

Kerry, meanwhile, has taken comfortable leads in one-time battlegrounds like Michigan and Washington.

Bush hopes to at least force Kerry to play defense in states like Oregon, Maine and New Jersey, all of which Bush lost in 2000. But Kerry aides are happy with the lay of the land.

“Right now, we think we are in enough states to win a clear and convincing victory in the Electoral College,” Kerry adviser Tad Devine said. “We think we’re in states right now where we have a real big advantage.”

Both sides are haunted by the memory of Gore’s decision in early October 2000 to pull out of Ohio, which in the end narrowly went for Bush. Devine said that move was forced by the need to spend Gore’s limited resources in Florida. This time, he said, the playing field is more even.

Voter turnout, as always, will be crucial. Democrats have led in new voter registrations in some of the key states, but analysts are uncertain how many of those voters will actually turn up at the polls.

Both campaigns and parties have put together huge voter turnout efforts on the ground in battleground states.

“What people don’t know is, what happens if it’s a high turnout election? Who votes and who doesn’t?” Streb said.