- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

It’s not too early to begin counting electoral votes — especially with only 11 months to go before we elect a president.

By my reckoning, if President Bush simply carries the same 30 states he won in 2000 against Al Gore, that would give him 278 electoral votes — eight more than he needs to win a second term.

Mr. Bush carried all of the Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Mr. Gore’s home state of Tennessee, Texas and Virginia; plus the border states Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia. In most cases, he won these states by strong margins as a sitting governor. It’s hard now to see him losing any of them this year as an incumbent president with a 60 percent job approval rating.

Florida was a nail-biter three years ago, but now all the polls show the president running strongly there against all his Democratic rivals.

Mr. Bush also carried all of the Western Plains states, including Idaho, North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming and Alaska. These have been dependable Republican states for many decades, so it’s extremely unlikely that they are going to change their voting patterns in the next 11 months, barring some major image-destroying catastrophe.

The addition of Republican-leaning Indiana, Ohio and New Hampshire to Mr. Bush’s list was enough to beat Mr. Gore then and even Howard Dean now.

Moreover, Mr. Bush begins with an additional numerical advantage in the electoral column because some of these states have more electoral votes than they did in 2000, a result of reapportionment and population shifts from the North to the South and West. Mr. Bush’s states gave him a bare 271 electoral vote majority out of 538 back then, but this year he is expected to head into the 2004 election with a larger numerical edge, though the exact number wasn’t available.

The Democratic presidential nominee, on the other hand, must begin by holding on to all the states Mr. Gore won: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin plus the District of Columbia.

But even here there has been some slippage. While these states gave Mr. Gore 266 electoral votes, today their electoral number has shrunk to 260 because of population losses in California, Connecticut, the District, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

So the Democrats are going to have to make up those losses somewhere else. But where? And can they even hold on to all the states Mr. Gore carried?

Both questions pose very serious problems for the Democrats’ future presidential prospects.

Democrats have shown in the past that they can compete in the South, but only when their presidential candidate came from the South: Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is about as far away from the South as an Ivy League New Englander can get, and, according to Southern Democrats I’ve spoken to, Mr. Dean doesn’t play that well down there.

This is not only the region where Mr. Bush’s job approval polls are highest, it’s also where support for going to war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein was particularly strong.

The anti-Iraq war banner Mr. Dean is proudly carrying is a political loser in the South among white, Democratic swing voters and independents. So the South is solidly Bush territory, as are the Western Plains states, with the possible exception of New Mexico, which remains a toss-up.

On the other hand, most of the Gore states are safe for the Democrats this time.

Clearly, the defeat of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election suggests that California will be in play this year. Mr. Bush starts off with one-third of the large Hispanic vote there and could do better than that as the economy continues to improve.

Several other Gore states are also toss-ups right now, including Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Mr. Gore carried Wisconsin and Oregon by fractions. He won Iowa by a mere 4,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast.

So the electoral map clearly favors the Republicans this year, making any Democratic candidacy an uphill climb to get the 270 electoral needed to win back the White House.

For the Democrats, it’s simply a reminder that their party cannot continue to “write off the South” — as one Democratic state chairman complained at a DNC meeting last year — and expect to be competitive in presidential elections.

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

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