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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Down to a Few States, Debates

Bush fights to hold on to a slim advantage over Kerry in the race for 270 electoral votes -- and once again it could all come down to Florida.

September 26, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

With five weeks remaining in the presidential contest, the race has narrowed to a struggle over roughly a dozen states, with President Bush holding the advantage in the fight for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

But strategists in both parties agree the outcome could once more come down to Florida, the hurricane-battered state that decided the 2000 election after a 36-day legal and political brawl.

First, however, will come three presidential debates -- starting Thursday night -- that will present an opportunity as well as perils for the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

For Bush, a winning performance could cement his lead in the bulk of the battleground states, where the latest surveys give him the upper hand. That would likely turn the election into a Bush romp.

For Kerry, a strong showing could stamp him in voters' minds as a credible alternative to the incumbent at a time when opinion surveys showed continued unease about the overall direction of the country and events in Iraq. That could turn the campaign back into a nip-and-tuck battle.

"The debates are horribly important,'' said Garry South, a Democratic strategist not affiliated with the Kerry campaign. "They could actually be decisive if they turn a certain way."

Both of the candidates were off the campaign trail Saturday, preparing for the debates. Bush was at his ranch in Texas, where he met with aides. Kerry was at home in Boston, emerging for about an hour for a touch football game with friends, staffers and a few passersby at a park. He planned to fly today to Wisconsin to continue his preparations.

Ultimately, the race will likely be decided by two fundamentals: which candidate controls the agenda from now to Nov. 2, and which side is better at getting out its vote on election day. Both major parties claim to have built their most far-reaching voter tracking and turnout operations ever.

The great unknown is Iraq and the shape of that country in 37 days and how that will affect voter attitudes on Nov. 2.

"If they believe invading Iraq has made us safer as the vanguard in the war on terrorism, people will probably vote for Bush," said Terry Madonna, director of Pennsylvania's nonpartisan Keystone Poll.

"If they think going to war was a mistake and Iraq is a mess, they're probably going to vote for Kerry."

One thing the candidates and their strategists can control over these last few weeks is the allocation of time and resources.

Both campaigns had viewed the country as a land of unbounded opportunity. Bush's team once spoke of carrying California, but a Los Angeles Times poll last week showed the president trailing in the state by 15 percentage points. Kerry campaigned in Virginia, but his team has since written off the state, which has not voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1964.

Strategists for the two camps are making cold-eyed calculations about where their candidates stand realistic chances of winning. As a result, states are rapidly falling off the political map, leaving just a handful that Democrats and Republicans rate as true tossups.

Those states, totaling 79 electoral votes, are Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, West Virginia and New Hampshire.

Several other states remain in play, campaign strategists and independent analysts say, even as they have appeared to tilt to either Bush or Kerry. These include Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Maine and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota, Oregon and Missouri, totaling another 83 electoral votes. Democrats also are keeping an eye on Colorado, with nine electoral votes, as a GOP-leaning state that is closer than expected and could grow more competitive.

Independent Ralph Nader is not seen as a major factor in the presidential contest, except possibly in Ohio, where a University of Cincinnati survey last week found him winning 4% support. The poll gave Bush an 11-point lead over Kerry in a state Republicans have carried every time they won the White House.

Many Democrats claim that Nader cost Vice President Al Gore the election four years ago when he drew votes away in Florida and New Hampshire, states Bush narrowly won. But analysts in both states are doubtful Nader -- who has struggled to qualify for the ballot in several states -- will repeat that performance.

"He won't get 22,000 votes this time,'' Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth political science professor, said of Nader's 2000 New Hampshire total.

"A lot of those came from ... students who said both parties were in bed with major corporations and it really didn't matter who you voted for. They're not going to do that this time."

Such calculations could quickly change, of course.

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