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The Nation | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush and Kerry Have Similar Road Maps to Victory

Both campaigns believe they each have about 200 electoral votes of the 270 needed. And it appears that Ohio is the most coveted prize.

March 19, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In their initial private assessments, advisors to President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry see the nation divided almost exactly in half, with both sides identifying virtually the same states as likely to determine November's winner.

An enormous overlap in early spending on political ads by the two camps underscores this convergence. Bush, Kerry and two interest groups supporting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee already have bought television advertisements in 16 states that split narrowly between Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

Strikingly, the campaigns also believe that both Bush and Kerry begin their battle with about 200 electoral votes leaning their way, of the 270 needed for election. And strategists for the two candidates point to Ohio as the single state most likely to pick the victor if the race remains close.

A senior Republican strategist close to the Bush campaign said that if either campaign could choose one state "to know the result of on election day [in order] to know who is going to win, that state would be Ohio."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Electoral college -- An article in Friday's Section A said the 12th Amendment to the Constitution established the electoral college in 1804. The electoral college was set up in 1789 by the Constitution. The 12th Amendment revised it, creating the system in use today by specifying that electors cast separate ballots for the president and the vice president.

Absent major changes in the economy or national security, neither campaign expects wholesale changes in the alignment of the states just four years after Bush squeezed out the second-narrowest electoral college majority since 1800.

"Overall, it's a very similar equation" this year, said Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist.

But the increasing spotlight on Ohio -- which Gore abandoned in the last weeks of the 2000 race to concentrate on Florida -- shows how economic and demographic changes have shifted this year's calculations.

Florida, the most closely contested major state in 2000, remains near the top of the "win" list for Bush and Kerry. But Republicans are confident that a good economy has tilted the state slightly in their direction, and some Democrats agree.

The Democrats' focus appears to have moved from Southern states that Gore fought for but lost in 2000 toward other possible pickups: Southwestern states -- especially Nevada and Arizona -- and states that have lost jobs under Bush, such as Ohio, West Virginia and Missouri.

Bush advisors see states with large numbers of rural and culturally conservative voters -- principally Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon -- as their best opportunities to capture electoral votes Gore won in 2000.

"The national security issue works fairly well for Bush in the Midwest, and potentially the cultural issue as well," said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "But the president has some economic weaknesses that he needs to address in these states and that, of course, gives the Democrats an opening."

In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote nationally by more than 500,000 votes, but slipped into the White House by winning 30 states with 271 electoral votes, compared with the 267 electoral votes Gore collected in 20 states. Since the 12th Amendment established the electoral college in 1804, only Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, won by a narrower margin -- one electoral vote in 1876.

Bush begins his quest for reelection with one key advantage. Because of population growth, the 30 states he carried will cast seven more electoral votes in 2004. That means if the states divide just as they did in 2000, he would beat Kerry, 278 electoral votes to 260.

An internal document prepared for the Kerry campaign and obtained by The Times gives Bush a clear advantage in 21 states with 179 electoral votes. Those states are clustered in an "L" shape that runs from the Mountain West east through the Great Plains and into the South.

The Kerry tally gives the Massachusetts senator a clear edge in the District of Columbia and 13 states in the Northeast and, in the West, California and Washington. These states total 183 electoral votes.

The assessment tabs Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee -- states Bush won four years ago -- as leaning toward him this year. Three other states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire -- are seen as leaning toward Kerry.

With the leaners, Kerry leads Bush in this analysis, 225 electoral votes to 206.

The Kerry document labels 10 states as tossups, with Florida, Missouri and Ohio the major prizes.

The Bush team's calculation is almost identical, except it describes Pennsylvania and New Hampshire as tossups, according to the GOP strategist familiar with the campaign's planning.

That means the Bush side agrees with the Kerry camp that the president is favored in states with 206 electoral votes. But under the Republican scenario, Kerry has the advantage in states with 200 electoral votes.

Overall, the early assessments point toward two principal battleground regions: the Southwest and the Midwest.

In the Southwest, Democrats are counting on the growing Latino population to help Kerry hold New Mexico -- which Gore carried by just 366 votes in 2000 -- and take from Bush Arizona, Nevada and perhaps Colorado.

The Midwest is a more familiar battleground in presidential contests.

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