WASHINGTON – An electoral battlefield map half its original size is prompting President Bush and challenger John Kerry (search) to alter their campaign strategies and reallocate resources in the home stretch to the Nov. 2 election.
Both political parties now see as few as 10 states as truly competitive as Bush pulls ahead in places where the contest had been neck and neck, including Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Bush has opened a single-digit lead in national polls taken after the Republican convention, which also is reflected in the polling in some battleground states.
Both parties are focusing most of their attention and advertising dollars on 10 states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia and New Hampshire.
Reflecting the changing dynamic, Bush's campaign this week increased its advertising in four states won in 2000 by Democrat Al Gore: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Michigan.
It also was cutting back on ads in states that appear to be moving out of play: Arizona and Missouri, which lean Bush's way, and Maine and Washington, which slightly favor Kerry. Bush also was cutting two staff positions in Arizona.
Under pressure, Kerry moved up plans to advertise in Michigan, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota — won by Gore in 2000 — and in West Virginia, won by Bush.
Florida, with its bounty of 27 electoral votes, decided the 2000 election after a lengthy recount that was resolved by the Supreme Court. And it remains closely divided.
Battered by two hurricanes and bracing for a third, "there is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of variables" on how the storms will affect voter turnout and voter attitudes, said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of Florida's Republican Party.
Still, Cardenas said Florida is a "microcosm of the country" and he sees the presidential race there — where Bush's brother Jeb is governor — as "a percentage point or two from what the national polls are showing," which is a slight Bush lead.
David Beattie, a Democratic pollster in Florida, said that "for the last three weeks, the state has been frozen in place politically."
He said Bush didn't get the same bounce in his state that he got elsewhere, partly because people were focused on Hurricane Frances. Many Florida television stations stuck with storm coverage rather than the Republican convention.
Beattie predicted that battleground states now moving toward Bush would tighten up again as the election nears. But for now, Kerry's supporters are watching earlier advantages slip away.
Post-convention polls show Bush to have opened a lead over Kerry in Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
In battleground Pennsylvania, state polls that show an even race may be misleading and overstate Bush's support, said Dan Fee, a Democratic consultant in the state.
Even though it's clearly a tight race, "I don't see lot of people jumping on Bush's bandwagon" and polls do not accurately reflect a surge in registration of new voters who are more likely to vote for Kerry than Bush, Fee said.
"We are more organized than I have ever seen," Fee added.
But Pennsylvania state Sen. Jane Earll, a Republican from Erie in the northwestern part of the state, says the Bush-Cheney organization is far more organized than it was four years ago.
"There are more campaign people around, more coordination, more ground troops and grass-roots organizing," she said.
Still, Earll said, Bush starts "with a registration deficit" in a state where Democrats still comfortably outnumber Republicans.
Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, went for Bush in 2000. And his recent gains came despite Democratic efforts to emphasize the state's economic woes, including unemployment that stands at 5.9 percent, above the national average of 5.4 percent.
"This state is very much John Kerry's to win. But he hasn't done it yet," said Paul Tipps, a Columbus lobbyist and former state Democratic Party chairman. He said Kerry needs to do more to communicate "exactly what his plans are" for restoring jobs.
Bush campaigned in Colorado on Tuesday as part of his plan to put that state, Missouri, Arizona, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana out of contention before Kerry can increase his campaign effort in these second-tier battlegrounds — all won by Bush four years ago.
Kerry advisers said Tuesday said that his weaknesses in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other former Gore states seem to be partly a result of lower-than-expected support from blacks. Blacks overwhelmingly favor Kerry, but not by as much as he needs.
Aides said Kerry has stepped up his speeches to black groups, including to the Congressional Black Caucus last weekend.
Democrats said Bush's gains in some battleground states was temporary.
"There are tremendous issue opportunities. I suspect we'll see a closer race very soon," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, an informal Kerry adviser.