Vice President Al Gore's strategy to go after states rich with electoral votes raises a remote possibility that has not occurred in presidential politics since 1888.
There is a chance he could capture 270 electoral votes and win the presidency even if he loses the popular vote to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"This election season has been so volatile, so fluid and so crazy that I'm not ruling anything out," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles.
The Texas governor leads Mr. Gore in numerous popular vote surveys, including the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which showed Mr. Bush ahead of Mr. Gore 51 percent to 40 percent. And in the latest Newsweek poll, the Texas governor has pulled in front of his Democratic rival, 48 percent to 41 percent.
In another poll conducted by pollster John Zogby for Reuters/MSNBC, released Saturday, Mr. Bush regained a one-point advantage over Mr. Gore, 45 percent to 44 percent.
Despite that Mr. Bush is pulling ahead, Mr. Gore still could win the election with enough electoral votes.
Indeed, three presidents lost the popular vote but wound up in the White House anyway: Benjamin Harrison in 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and John Quincy Adams in 1824.
Split decisions between the popular vote and the electoral vote are unheard of in an era of mass media, with national newscasts and televised debates.
In modern elections, analysts say, voters in many states reach similar conclusions, and a mass consensus develops.
"The swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan are likely to all swing one way," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Report.
"It could happen; you could have an unusual situation. But I wouldn't anticipate it," he said.
"Certainly, anything is possible," said Jack Burkman, a Republican analyst and a fund-raiser for Mr. Bush. But "the odds on Bush losing the electoral map are dwindling," he said.
In the final weeks of a close election "people start to make up their minds and things break," Mr. Burkman said.
To prevail Nov. 7, Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore must win a majority of the nation's 538 electoral votes.
Each state's electoral vote is based on its population. For example, Virginia, which has 11 members of the House of Representatives and two senators, gets 13 electoral votes. Maryland, with eight representatives and two senators, has 10 electoral votes.
Most races considered close by modern standards are not particularly close in the electoral college.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by 118,574 votes out of 68.8 million cast. But the Democrat mustered 303 electoral votes to the Republican's 219.
The tightest recent battle in the electoral vote came in 1976. Democrat Jimmy Carter received 297 electoral votes to 240 for Republican Gerald R. Ford.
To be sure, both the Bush and Gore campaigns carefully will watch the electoral map Nov. 7, particularly the big swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.
Consider the following scenario: If Mr. Gore were to eke out wins in Pennsylvania and Michigan, he might amass 150 electoral votes in just five states California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Mr. Gore also appears likely to get 15 electoral votes in New Jersey, 12 in Massachusetts and 10 in Maryland. He hopes to capture 10 more in traditionally Democratic Minnesota. Add three from the District of Columbia, and Mr. Gore would hit 200.
Then factor in smaller, stalwart Democratic states: eight from Connecticut, four from Hawaii, four from Rhode Island, three from Vermont. That would get Mr. Gore to 219.
The vice president hopes to tap five states that have voted Democratic in three straight elections and gain 11 from Wisconsin, 11 from Washington, seven from Oregon, seven from Iowa and five from West Virginia. That would get him to 260.
That leaves Tennessee. No presidential nominee has lost his home state since 1972, when George McGovern lost South Dakota to President Nixon.
If Mr. Gore won Tennessee's 11 electoral votes he would clinch the presidency with 271 electoral votes.
Under such a scenario the Texas governor could win 31 of the 50 states including Texas, Florida and Ohio. But he would amass just 267 electoral votes and fall three short of the presidency.
There are many caveats to such a scenario. Both camps are waging furious fights for Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Mr. Bush is working hard on Democratic turf and appears to have a fighting chance in Tennessee, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader is hurting Mr. Gore in Minnesota, where a new poll gives Mr. Bush a slight lead.
But the national polls do not tell the full story.
Following the second presidential debate, at Wake Forest University, Bush adviser Karen Hughes relayed a message to Mr. Bush through another aide.
"Tell him he just became the president of the United States," she said.
Greg Simon, a senior Gore adviser, recently cautioned Mrs. Hughes not to count her chickens or Mr. Bush's electoral votes prematurely.
Mr. Simon, who serenades the vice president's traveling press corps daily, sang his warning to the tune of "Hello Young Lovers."
"Hello, dear Karen, wherever you are.
You're quick to elect your star.
I hope that you pause to weigh and observe
Where the electoral votes are."
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett says fanciful speculation always arises in a close contest. He does not expect a split decision.
"While it's very close, I believe the voters will have the final say," he said. "I don't think we'll have a replay of 1888."
Mrs. Jeffe, the analyst from California, hopes he is right. She says a split decision between the popular vote and the electoral vote would make it hard for the next president to lead.
A presidential election "is about credibility it's about legitimacy," she said. "It's not about words on paper."
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