- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

Although the presidential race appears neck-and-neck in the popular vote, a dra-matically different picture emerges when one considers the only number that really matters: the electoral count.

Right now, my state-by-state survey shows that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is ahead in enough states to give him 250 electoral votes, or just 20 votes short of the 270 he needs to win the White House.

Based on independent presidential polls around the country, Mr. Bush has clear leads in at least 22 states that would give him 178 electoral votes. He has slight leads in five more states that would give him 72 additional electoral votes.

At the moment, Mr. Bush leads Al Gore in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

In the leaning column, Mr. Bush has the edge in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina.

Mr. Gore, on the other hand, begins this year's long general election campaign with a much smaller number of states solidly in his pocket. He has a strong lead in only eight of them, plus the District of Columbia, which would give him only 89 electoral votes. He is ahead by various degrees in seven other states, giving him a current total of 182 votes 88 short of what he needs to win.

Mr. Gore is well ahead of Mr. Bush in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and D.C.

In the leaning column, Mr. Gore has the edge in California, Delaware, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon and his home state of Tennessee, where he leads Mr. Bush by a mere 6 percent in the most recent Mason-Dixon poll.

This means that, barring any sweeping changes elsewhere, this year's presidential contest could be decided by the eight states, with a total of 106 electoral votes, that are considered tossups: Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.

But Mr. Gore would have to carry the lion's share of these tossups to get to 270, without losing any of the states where he now leads. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, would need to win only one or two of the biggest electoral prizes in this group to clinch the election. Pennsylvania, with its 23 electoral votes, would do it for him.

What emerges from even a cursory examination of the electoral map at this point is how weak Al Gore looks right now. If he were to fall behind in California, with its huge 54 electoral votes, he would be finished.

The electoral survey not only shows Mr. Bush enjoys much wider geographical appeal, it also suggests the Republican electoral lock in the South may once again be the key to a GOP presidential victory.

If you were to color the states in which Mr. Bush leads right now, they would resemble a large "L" running down all of the Western plains and mountain states to the Rio Grande, then turning sharply east across most of the South.

Mr. Gore leads in the Northeast, including New England and New York. But the pivotal battleground states remain, as always, in the Midwest. It is likely that three of them, accounting for 51 electoral votes, will decide who will be taking the oath of office next January.

In no other state, except for his own, is Al Gore's regional weakness more evident than in Wisconsin, a state the Democrats have carried in the last three presidential elections. Yet Mr. Gore is struggling there against Mr. Bush, and polls show the two men in a dead heat.

Similarly, in Michigan, which President Clinton carried in the last two elections, Mr. Bush has a 5-point edge in one poll (44 percent to 39 percent). Another state survey has them tied 44 percent to 44 percent. If Mr. Gore, with the power of the AFL-CIO behind him, cannot do better than this in a union state, his prospects are dim indeed.

Or consider Illinois, which Bill Clinton swept with 54 percent of the vote in 1996. The polls there show Mr. Gore leading Mr. Bush by no more than 4 percent, according to a recent Zogby poll. The 4 percent margin of error makes it a statistical tie.

Bush strategists look at these numbers as a sign of Mr. Gore's vulnerability because they believe that in a close election, Republican turnout rates are more reliable than the Democrats' base of minority and labor-union votes.

Further evidence of Mr. Gore's electoral weakness in the South is his decision to put a great deal of his resources into contesting Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush has committed his political organization to winning the state for his brother. The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows Mr. Bush ahead there, 45 percent to 37 percent.

The bottom line in the race for 270 electoral votes is that, seven months before voters go to the polls, this is Mr. Bush's election to lose.

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