Sunday, October 17, 2004

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry traded fire yesterday in Florida and Ohio, respectively, as the presidential race entered its final two weeks with the focus on a shrinking number of dead-even battleground states.

And one or two of them — such as Florida or Ohio — could determine whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry wins.

There are as many scenarios for the outcome of this year’s down-to-the-wire election as there are analysts. But some election trackers and pollsters believe the contest will be decided in three pivotal states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“In that scenario, Kerry has to win Pennsylvania, Bush has to win Florida, and Ohio will decide which way it goes,” said Clay Richards, vice president for the Quinnipiac College Poll.

The election battle can be reduced to nine or so states that remain true tossups. Multiple mathematical combinations lead to Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the election.

Both candidates yesterday tried to drive home their messages.

“We’re losing good jobs,” Mr. Kerry said during a rally in Xenia, Ohio, in which he dwelled on the outsourcing of American jobs. “Consumer confidence in America is plunging downwards as people have more and more doubts about the economy. Doubts are one of the things a president is elected to deal with.”

Mr. Bush, campaigning in Daytona Beach, Fla., hounded the Massachusetts Democrat for his voting record on the war in Iraq.

“At a time of great threat to this country, at a time of great challenge in the world, the commander in chief must stand on principle, not on the shifting sands of political convenience,” Mr. Bush said.

Most campaign analysts have whittled the essential winning list of states down to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio in the Midwest, Florida in the South, New Mexico in the Southwest and Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine in the Northeast. Together these states deliver a total of 108 electoral votes.

“It’s down to those tossups, and it keeps changing. I had Kerry ahead in New Hampshire, but none of them is safe,” said pollster John Zogby, whose latest survey has Mr. Bush leading nationally by four points. “We’re seeing the lead change every several days. It’s very close.”

No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio’s 20 electoral votes, and Mr. Bush appears to have fallen behind there in the past week as a result of a battered economy and manufacturing-job losses.

Even so, election analysts say the president could lose Ohio and still win the election by carrying Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Iowa (seven) and New Mexico (five), states that Al Gore won in 2000 and whose 22 electoral votes would offset Ohio.

But the race in Iowa remains a dead heat. Wisconsin also is tight, with Mr. Bush having the edge. New Mexico, which Mr. Gore narrowly won by 366 votes, is similarly split down the middle. The latest Gallup Poll showed the president leading there by a bare three points, but an Albuquerque Journal poll had Mr. Kerry up by three points, all within the margin of error.

Mr. Kerry cannot afford to lose any of the states that Mr. Gore won last time because he has fewer opportunities to take Bush states in the South, Western Plains or the border states. Still, the senator could put himself within striking distance of 270 by taking some states that Mr. Bush won last year, including Florida (27), New Hampshire (four), Nevada (five) and Missouri (11).

However, polls show that Mr. Bush has held a sustained edge in Missouri and Nevada and likely will carry both. Most surveys find him leading by anywhere from three to seven percentage points in Florida, too.

“We’ll be on this state like the morning dew,” senior Bush political strategist Karl Rove told The Washington Times yesterday in an interview in the Democratic stronghold of West Palm Beach.

The nation’s electoral map right now looks like this:

• Mr. Bush leads in the Southern and border states and the Western Plains and Southwestern states, except New Mexico. In the Midwest, he has clear leads in Indiana and Missouri. That would give him 254 electoral votes, 16 shy of the 270 needed to win.

• Mr. Kerry leads in most of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, the Midwestern states of Illinois and Michigan, and the coastal states of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. That gives him 203 electoral votes, 67 short of what he needs.

• Eight states are too close to call: Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Midwest; Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine in the Northeast; and New Mexico for a total 81 electoral votes.

• New Jersey, a heavily Democratic state that was solidly in Mr. Kerry’s column for months, has tightened lately, leading Bush strategists to pay more attention to it in recent weeks. Vice President Dick Cheney campaigned there last week and Mr. Bush plans to visit tomorrow.

Most polls conducted this month have shown Mr. Kerry leading in New Jersey by three to eight points. But the most recent Quinnipiac poll showed Mr. Kerry’s lead dwindling to three percentage points, suggesting that the state may be more competitive than previously believed.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll conducted Oct. 8-10 found New Jersey was a dead heat.

• Charles Hurt, reporting from Ohio, and James Lakely, reporting from Florida, contributed to this article.

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