WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry (search) has opened narrow leads in Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and a handful of other battleground state polls since accepting the Democratic nomination, increasing pressure on President Bush to regain lost ground at the Republican National Convention (search).
The incumbent hopes to reverse Kerry's gains by reminding voters of his leadership after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, outlining a second-term agenda that includes new domestic policies and questioning Kerry's qualifications to be commander in chief.
Buoyed by the polls, Kerry's team is growing confident — maybe too confident for some Democrats. Several supporters worry that rising expectations are setting the party up for disappointment should the race tighten after Bush's convention in New York, which begins Aug. 30.
"You never want to point to your best poll numbers or your worst poll numbers, because neither hold," said Democratic strategist Dane Strother.
The Kerry campaign has plenty of positive numbers to cite, including:
— An Epic-MRA survey suggesting that Michigan is tilting slightly toward the Democratic ticket.
— An American Research Group survey showing Kerry-Edwards with small lead in New Hampshire.
Those three states, with a combined 48 electoral votes, were evenly split between Kerry and Bush before last month's Democratic National Convention (search) in Boston.
In addition, Pennsylvania and Oregon — a combined 28 electoral votes — were evenly split in July, and now the states appear to tilt toward Kerry, according to private polling and interviews with strategists in both parties.
While national polls show the race still tied or Kerry slightly ahead, the convention helped him trim Bush's advantage on national security. In a campaign this close, it doesn't take much to tilt a state from "tossup" to "lean Kerry."
And it wouldn't take much to push them back into the tossup category.
"After Kerry's pick of Edwards, the Democrat convention highlighting Kerry, and all the big momentum they were supposed to have, Kerry only leads by a couple of points? This is trouble for him because between their convention and Election Day, challengers always lose ground," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
For now, it's the incumbent who has to make up ground.
If public polls and pundits are right, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oregon and 15 others states plus the District of Columbia are in Kerry's column or leaning his way with 269 electoral votes — one short of the presidency.
But it's not nearly that simple.
Florida still appears to be a tossup state, with Kerry leading by only a few points in private Democratic polling.
In Pennsylvania, a preponderance of polling gives Kerry an edge, but Bush isn't giving up on the state that he has visited 31 times, his favorite destination among the 50. In fact, he has intensified his television advertising in Pennsylvania and five other states: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin.
Mark them down. They may be the most important states of the campaign.
Florida and Ohio, the latter with 20 electoral votes, offer Kerry his best chance of winning big states that went Republican in 2000. Nevada, with just five votes, may be Kerry's next ripest GOP target.
Since his first day in office, Pennsylvania has been No. 1 on Bush's wish-list of states won by Al Gore in 2000. If he can't win the Keystone State, the president would turn to New Mexico and Wisconsin, with a combined 15 electoral votes that went to Gore.
Because of reapportionment, which reallocated state electoral votes based on the latest population data, Kerry could reclaim every Gore state and still be 10 electoral votes short of the coveted 270.
Quoting public polls, Kerry aides say their boss is leading Bush, often narrowly, in 24 states plus the District of Columbia for a total of 316 electoral votes. They say Bush's presidency is hanging by a thread. "This is not a good place for the incumbent to be," said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman.
That may be true, but some Democrats would rather not hear about raised expectations.
"You always have to strike a balance between recognizing a good moment and setting the bar so high that in a couple of weeks, particularly after the Republican convention, you've created an image that you've lost momentum," said Greg Haas, a Democratic strategist in Ohio who advises Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.
Warming up for the GOP convention, Bush has accused Kerry of sending "mixed signals" on Iraq and Cheney has mocked the Democrat for supporting a "more sensitive" war on terror.
Bush's acceptance speech will be laced with policy initiatives, some of them new, in a bid to persuade voters that he has a second-term agenda for the economy, health care and other issues that Democrats consider their own.
Just as Kerry convinced some voters that he's tough enough to lead the nation at war, Bush hopes to show the electorate that he's capable of directing the nation back to peace and prosperity.