North Carolina. Colorado. Iowa, Indiana, Nevada, Virginia - and the old favorites Ohio and Florida.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time again - already. With just more than 500 days to go until Election Day 2012, the pundits and pollwatchers are beginning to calculate which states will be crucial this time around, and, not surprisingly, they're pretty much the same as they always are, at least for the past half-dozen cycles or so.
Despite the new wave of optimism among Republicans (the hot mantra now is President Obama is sooo beatable), whoever emerges from the paltry pack of political pygmies now running for the Republican nomination will have a Herculean task.
In case they've all forgotten, Mr. Obama won the presidency in 2008 by a landslide in the electoral college - 365 to 173. That's Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole territory. Needed to win the presidency is 270 electoral votes, so, the R nom will have to flip 95 votes to pull it out. Ninety-five.
You want to know what that means? (If you're still reading this, of course you do. For those who are abandoning this column right now, check back in 15 months, when the projections will really matter.) That means the Republican nominee would have to win California, New York - and another 11 electoral votes somewhere.
Or, acknowledging that there's no way that'll happen, the R candidate needs to flip Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Rhode Island to pick up the needed 95 votes. As George H.W. Bush (the last R to win handily in the Electoral College, 426-111; his son won in 2000 with just one vote to spare and with 16 to spare in 2004) would say, nahgonnahappen.
Insane, right? Absolutely. So, let's talk about some plausible projections.
The latest layout from University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato sketches the state of the race right now. According to his math, Republicans have 105 "safe" electoral votes, but Democrats have a whopping 182 considered "safe." R's have 65 votes that are "likely," and another 10 "lean" toward their way. That gives the Grand Old Party 180 electoral votes - less than the Dems have in "safe" votes.
If you add the "likely" and "lean" votes to the Democrats, they've got 247 - just 23 shy of re-election for Mr. Obama. So, according to Mr. Sabato's projection, Republicans would need to win nearly every one of the 111 electoral votes that are now considered "tossups" - Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Even if that mythical Republican candidate were to flip Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and, say, North Carolina, he (or she) would still be seven EV's short. And of course, there's good reason that the Democratic National Committee picked Charlotte, N.C., for its 2012 convention (even if the John Edwards baby's mama trial will deflate a bit of the Dems' enthusiasm).
North Carolina was almost a dead split in 2008 - Mr. Obama drew 49.70 percent of the vote to Arizona Sen. John McCain's 49.38 percent. D's see North Carolina as crucial to Mr. Obama's re-election, just as R's - who picked Tampa, Fla., for their convention - see the flipping of Florida, where Mr. Obama won by about 3 percentage points, as key to their hopes to dethrone The One. (Note to Sarah Palin: If you get in, persuade Sen. Marco Rubio to join you: A Hispanic Floridian on the ticket might, uh, help - a lot.)
Ohio (Obama +5) and Pennsylvania (Obama +10!) are much bigger problems. Unflippable? Of course not. But 18 months out, who's working them? No one. In May 2007, candidates were all over the place, milling about with "the people" - not just in Iowa and New Hampshire, but South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio. In May 2011, no one's out yet. Mrs. Palin is on a sightseeing tour, hitting crabfeasts in New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney is - yeah, where is Mitt? Can't see him in Mrs. Palin's shadow.
Mr. Sabato calls North Carolina key. Bush-era savant Karl Rove calls Colorado key. They're probably both right. From the math right now, there are about 10 key states for Republicans if they're going to get from 173 electoral votes to 270. The only thing the Republicans lack right now is a candidate who excites, well, anyone.
Sure, the economy is bad and getting worse. Experts predict oil prices will rise 50 percent to $150 a barrel in 2012, which would mean $5+ gasoline heading into the election. And sure, the uber-intellectual Mr. Obama, elected on his "promise," has turned out to be a spectacular dud.
But will any Republican candidate even think to reprise the old, "Are you better off?" campaign. Millions of people would answer no, but they have to be asked first.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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