WASHINGTON — Even as the first potential candidates move toward the starting line, the ground may be shifting in the 2008 race for the White House.
This month's midterm election highlighted cracks in an electoral landscape that had been unusually stable.
Democrats have been hurt by the inability of their recent presidential candidates to wage competitive campaigns across a vast swath of the country. But the party emerged from this year's vote confident that in 2008, it can compete on a much wider playing field -- especially in the West and several states on the fringe of the South.
"If you look at the results from '06, you see a lot of states that Democrats may be able to take ... if they can swing the center the way they did" this year, said Ruy Teixeira, a public opinion analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
Many Republicans acknowledge that the midterm results mean they may be forced to strenuously defend states such as Colorado and Virginia in 2008, which the party's recent presidential nominees considered safely in their camp.
But they also insisted that a Democratic presidential nominee would probably find it difficult to steer as moderate a course as Democrats who triumphed this year in GOP-leaning states, such as Gov.-elect Bill Ritter in Colorado and Sen.-elect Jim Webb in Virginia.
What both sides agree on is that after few shifts in the electoral map this decade -- only three states changed hands between the presidential races of 2000 and 2004 -- the sweeping Democratic gains in 2006 raise the possibility that fresh battlegrounds and alignments will determine the White House winner.
"It makes 2008 a fascinating chessboard to look at," said Republican strategist Tom Rath, an advisor to likely GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, Massachusetts' governor.
Stability has been the watchword in the race for the White House, not only in President Bush's two campaigns, but in the two elections won by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Thirty-four states have supported the same party in each of the last four elections, the highest level in decades.
On balance, this hardening division has hurt Democrats more than Republicans. Although Democrats have won 18 states (and the District of Columbia) worth 248 electoral college votes in four consecutive elections, they have struggled since 2000 to challenge Republicans for much terrain beyond that base.
By the end of the 2004 campaign, for instance, Democrat John F. Kerry was seriously contesting only three states beyond the 18 solidly Democratic ones, leaving him few options to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
"You usually lose presidential elections by being painted into an electoral college corner," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
Many Democrats believe the 2006 results expanded their options for reaching an electoral college majority in 2008.
Republicans suffered erosion in the outer South that may signal new Democratic opportunities. For instance, a resounding victory by Democrat Mike Beebe in the Arkansas governor's race could put that state high on the party's target list for 2008. And Republicans acknowledge that Webb's victory in Virginia over GOP Sen. George Allen -- coming a year after Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's convincing win in the gubernatorial race -- is likely to put that state's 13 electoral college votes in play.
Ohio, which backed Bush twice, presents a more complex picture: Democrats scored big gains there this year, but they benefited from local scandals unlikely to matter as much in 2008. Still, Democratic challenger Sherrod Brown ran well in culturally conservative rural areas with a populist tough-on-trade message in swamping Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. That message, Brown argued after the election, offers "a bridge between rural and urban voters" that could allow the Democratic presidential nominee to win the state two years from now.
Democrats achieved mixed results Nov. 7 in another targeted region: the Mountain West, which Bush swept in 2004.
Big reelection margins for Democratic Govs. Bill Richardson in New Mexico and Janet Napolitano in Arizona were offset by GOP victories in the Arizona Senate race and in a high-profile New Mexico House contest. Democrats also lost several close races in Nevada, including the governorship.
In two states in the region, though, the trends are favorable for Democrats.
In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester ousted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns just two years after Democrat Brian Schweitzer won the governorship.
More important, Colorado emerged next to Virginia as the top new target for Democrats. A party nominee who could hold all the states Kerry won in 2004 and add just those two states would obtain an electoral college majority.