- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The vaunted Republican “electoral lock” was restored when President Bush swept the South and virtually all the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states of the West in 2000.

With eight months to go before Election Day, my state-by-state analysis of the emerging 2004 electoral map shows that if anything the GOP’s lock has grown a bit stronger.

If the Southern lock alone continues resisting the Democrats’ assault, John Kerry would need to clear a nearly insurmountable electoral hurdle to win back the White House for his party, Mr. Bush’s top campaign advisers say.

“The difficult part for Kerry is that, as of today, he trails across the South by about 10 points. And if Republicans carry the solid South, he will have to win 70 percent of the remaining electoral votes in the rest of the country to be elected president,” Bush campaign adviser Ralph Reed told me.

Based on the latest state polls, interviews with campaign strategists in both parties and a review of each state’s electoral record, 22 states now appear safe for Mr. Bush, totaling 186 electoral votes. They include Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

Three more states with 25 electoral votes — Arizona, Arkansas and Colorado — are leaning to Mr. Bush. These 25 states, which Mr. Bush won in 2000, would give him 211 votes out of the 270 he needs to win a second term.

Mr. Kerry, however, leads in 11 states plus the District of Columbia, which would give him 168 electoral votes. They include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Three other states, with a combined 32 electoral votes, are leaning to Mr. Kerry: Washington, Maine and Michigan. These states, all of which Al Gore won in 2000, would give Mr. Kerry a total of 200 votes.

Eleven other states, delivering a combined 127 electoral votes, are the tossup or “battleground” states, that will likely decide who wins. They are Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon,Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bush carried five of them in 2000 — Florida, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and New Hampshire — which would give him 67 more electoral votes, or eight more than he needs.

Al Gore carried the other six: Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico (by only 366 votes), Oregon, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If Mr. Kerry can hold them, they would push his electoral stakes to 260 — still 10 short of the magic number.

Mr. Bush’s strategists say the electoral count could be just as close as when the election hinged on the disputed Florida recount Mr. Bush won, giving him a bare 271 electoral votes, just one more than he needed to claim the White House.

“The reason this race is likely to be so close is not because the popular vote is going to be so evenly divided but also because the relative strengths of the two parties are reflected in the electoral map,” Mr. Reed told me.

But Mr. Reed, who oversaw Mr. Bush’s pivotal Southern strategy in 2000, said the president remains “extremely strong in the Rocky Mountain states and the South, which together comprise roughly 250 electoral votes. While it is going to be very competitive and extremely close, we have some real strong areas in the electoral map, and I like our chances.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Bush is being sorely challenged in some key states that put him over the top last time. West Virginia, hard hit by job losses, is at the top of the president’s TV ad targets to counter a spurt of early support for Mr. Kerry. New Hampshire, ground zero for the Democrats’ primary campaign attacks on Mr. Bush, looks like Kerry country now.

“Ohio and Missouri [which Mr. Bush carried narrowly last time] are going to be huge battleground states and are going to be tough because of job losses and the economic environment,” says Republican strategist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign.

Still, Mr. Kerry is also looking vulnerable in surprising places as a result of the White House counterattack on his weak defense record and his vote against military funding for the troops in Iraq.

Pennsylvania, which Al Gore won last time, may have moved from a tossup to leaning to Mr. Bush. A Franklin-Marshall College poll showed the state in a dead heat in February, followed by a Quinnipiac College poll earlier this month that showed Mr. Kerry trailing Mr. Bush by 5 points.

Mr. Bush has visited Pennsylvania 26 times since he became president and has his ground operation up and running, while Mr. Kerry has been there only once and still has not put a campaign team in place.

No president with two exceptions (Richard Nixon in 1968 and Mr. Bush in 2000) has been elected without winning this state. Mr. Kerry has said it is possible to win the presidency without the South, a dubious claim. But if he loses Pennsylvania, it is hard to see how he could make up its hefty 21 electoral votes elsewhere on an electoral map where Mr. Bush still has the edge.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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