Down to a Few States, Debates

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.

“You don’t know what intervening events are going to happen,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis, a Virginia Republican helping lead the party’s efforts to keep control of the House. “Bush has the lead right now, but it’s kind of like being up by a touchdown in the third quarter. A quick TD pass and a field goal for the other side and it could turn around.”

With that caveat, a survey of the electoral map -- based on recent polls, a review of the candidates’ advertising strategies and interviews with independent analysts and Bush and Kerry strategists -- suggests that the president has 242 electoral votes locked up or leaning his way.

He leads comfortably in most of the states he carried in 2000, while fighting to hold onto Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Ohio and Nevada.

At the same time, Bush is ahead or highly competitive in several states that Gore won and Kerry almost certainly has to capture this time to win the White House. Wisconsin -- which was close four years ago -- tops this list, followed by Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

“We’re clearly lagging behind where we want to be,” said Paul Maslin, a national Democratic pollster who lives in Madison, Wis. He said Kerry must sharpen the contrast between his economic and healthcare proposals and Bush’s plans.

“It’s not enough to just get up there and salute,” Maslin said, referring to the emphasis Kerry earlier placed on his Vietnam War record.

Kerry has 217 electoral votes that appear solid or likely to fall his way. But his target map is shrinking, with states such as Arizona, Louisiana and Arkansas -- where he invested precious ad dollars -- falling by the wayside.

Missouri, which has 11 electoral votes and once looked to be a major battleground, is also tilting strongly Bush’s way.

“Kerry doesn’t connect as well,” said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. “The state of Missouri can be liberal on some things -- outsourcing of jobs, economic issues and health issues. [But] when it comes to ... moral values, Missourians are much more conservative than people on the West Coast and East Coast.”

The Democratic National Committee is keeping a modest advertising presence in the state, in case it turns competitive at the end, the way Ohio did four years ago.

An independent pro-Kerry group is also airing a spot in St. Louis tying Bush to the Saudi royal family.

Inside the Kerry camp, however, strategists no longer count Missouri in their calculations for winning the White House. Also crossed off the map are Tennessee and North Carolina, the home state of Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards.

As a result, the strategists are hoping to scratch out a narrow victory by clinging to states Gore won and edging past Bush in one or two others. “The states that Bush should and will win, he will win by a wide margin,” predicted David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant. “The states that we should win ... we might win by less of a margin.”

Momentum in the race began shifting Bush’s way in August, after a Democratic National Convention that many in the party now consider a squandered opportunity that dwelt too much on Kerry’s past. Kerry’s failure to respond quickly and forcefully to attacks on his Vietnam record that began shortly after the convention also hurt him, analysts say.

Perhaps the most critical factor in giving Bush the political advantage was the Republican convention, which was built almost entirely around attacks on Kerry’s toughness and praise for the president’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That turned the contest’s focus from the incumbent to his challenger and elevated concerns about terrorism and national security, which has proved a plus for Bush.

Pennsylvania, a Democratic-leaning state that Kerry once hoped to have put away by now, is a good example of this changed dynamic.

The state has lost more than 74,000 jobs since Bush took office. But from March to September, the percentage of people who said the economy was the most important factor in determining their vote fell from 31% to 20%, according to Madonna, the Keystone Poll director. The number of people who cited domestic security and terrorism rose from 22% to 26%.

Kerry went from a 6 percentage point lead over Bush after his nominating convention to a dead-even race in the most recent Keystone survey.

“What happened here was the same thing that happened nationally,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democrat who writes an online column on Pennsylvania politics. “Kerry has been diminished in voters’ eyes as a potential president of the United States.”

Ceisler predicted a Kerry win in Pennsylvania, thanks to strong organizing in its major cities and support from moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, who were likely to favor his position on legalized abortion and expanded stem-cell research.

But he said Kerry would have to work hard to win the support of Democrats in industrial areas such as Scranton that had been hit hard economically and once seemed fertile ground for the Massachusetts senator. “He had them, then lost them,” Ceisler said. “Now he needs to get them back again.”

It is hard to see how Kerry can win the White House without carrying Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes. But if he can win Pennsylvania and hold virtually every other state Gore carried, he can claim the White House by winning Florida and its 27 electoral votes.

The state has prospered under Bush, gaining nearly 300,000 jobs in the past four years. And Bush’s younger brother, Jeb, remains the governor, meaning the president is assured of an all-out effort by the state Republican Party on his behalf.

But Democrats think they will benefit from the influx of Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrants in the central part of the state, and hope that a ballot measure to boost the minimum wage works to their advantage.

Surveying the state has been difficult, pollsters say, because of the devastation from the hurricanes that have pounded Florida over the last month. But most analyst agree Florida may be as closely divided as it was in 2000, when Bush was certified the winner by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.

The weather-related misery only compounds the uncertainty. The president’s frequent aid visits seem to have helped in the short term, said Lance de Haven-Smith, who teaches political science at Florida State University. “But if the election gets here and people say, ‘Geez, things are still terrible,’ they may blame him.”