WASHINGTON – Eight states worth just 99 electoral votes are up for grabs in the closely fought presidential race, with the White House going to whoever conquers this shrinking battlefield.
While another dozen states could come into play if either candidate breaks open the race, President Bush (search) and Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search ) entered the campaign homestretch assuming that wouldn't happen. Their strategies focused heavily — but not exclusively — on essentially tied races in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico.
National polls suggest the race is tight, but a vast majority of the states are overwhelmingly supporting one candidate over the other — leaving a handful to determine who wins the White House.
Taken together, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania account for 68 of the 99 votes from these tossup states. They form a triangle of influence unmatched on the political map.
"Whoever wins two of those three wins the White House — and I hope to God it's my guy," said Democratic consultant Greg Haas of Columbus, Ohio.
With 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency, 26 states are solidly behind Bush or lean his way for 222 electoral votes, according to an Associated Press analysis. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia are with Kerry or leaning his way for 217 electoral votes.
Sixteen days before Election Day, the president needs to scrape together at least 48 of the remaining 99 votes from tossup states to win re-election. Kerry needs 53 to stop him.
The AP analyzed poll data, both public and private, and interviewed analysts in key states in the days since the final debate Wednesday. While public and private polls suggested Bush may be gaining ground on Kerry, the consensus was that the race was remarkably close going into the last two full weeks of campaigning.
A surge by either candidate — 3 or 4 percentage points in national polls — could shift the eight states and the 99 electoral votes to one candidate, putting him on course for a 300-plus electoral romp.
That would put other states on the bubble — Democratic-leaning Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and perhaps even New Jersey if Bush takes off; and GOP-leaning Colorado, West Virginia and Arizona if Kerry gains steam.
Hope springs eternal: Bill Clinton (search ), recovering from heart surgery, is lobbying Kerry to compete in his home state of Arkansas.
Four years ago, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency. Bush won 30 states and the electoral chase with one vote to spare — 271. Because of population growth, those states are worth 278 electoral votes Nov. 2.
If Kerry reclaims Gore's states, he would have just 260 votes — 10 short of victory. Where does he get them?
His biggest targets are Florida's 27 votes and Ohio's 20. Bush narrowly won both states in 2000.
"I'm not saying I've been here a lot," Kerry said Saturday in Ohio, "but I'm about to have my mail forwarded here."
Though public polls suggest those races are essentially tied, pollsters and campaign strategists say Kerry appears slightly stronger in Ohio than in Florida. The Buckeye state has lost 237,000 jobs since Bush took office and many voters are growing weary of the state GOP.
In Florida, the economy is relatively strong and Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (search), controls the levers of power. White House officials worry that a spate of hurricanes, which hit GOP counties hardest, will reduce turnout among the president's backers.
Turnout is one wild card in the race to 270. Hoping to reverse the Democrats' traditional advantage on the ground game, the White House built a national organization with an Amway-like business model that relies on networks of volunteers tightly controlled by Bush's team.
Before Democratic leaders knew who would be their nominee, they created an alliance of liberal interest groups, raised gobs of money and hired thousands of people to knock on doors with Palm Pilots and voter registration forms.
Nobody knows which operation will work best, but the combined efforts dramatically increased voter registration across the country.
Several analysts, including some Bush advisers, said early indications suggest Democrats have signed up the most new voters in the tossup states.
"But you never know how it's going to shake out on Election Day," said Matt Corrigan, political science professor at the University of North Florida. Newly registered voters are usually the least likely to vote, he said.
If the final debate didn't reshape the race, external events might. A calamity in Iraq. A terrorist strike or terror alerts. What if Usama bin Laden finally turns up?
"I think this is going to be a more event-driven election than virtually any we've seen in years," said Paul Beck, a dean and elections specialist at Ohio State University.
If Kerry fails to shift Ohio or Florida to the Democratic column, there are not enough electoral votes in the two other GOP tossup states to put him at 270. Nevada has just five, New Hampshire four.
"I wouldn't bet a nickel either way" on dead-even Nevada, said University of Las Vegas professor Ted G. Jelen. Kerry hopes to make an issue out of a nuclear waste dump backed by Bush.
The four-term Massachusetts senator is a known quantity in neighboring New Hampshire, and Bush's team is worried about that race.
Outside the tossup category, Kerry has his eye on Hispanic-rich Colorado, which barely leans Bush and has nine electoral votes. A ballot initiative might allow the loser of the state to pick up a portion of those votes, but the measure is trailing in polls and would face legal challenges if approved.
While protecting his turf in four tossup states, Bush is pressing Kerry in four states won by Gore.
Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes and 39 presidential visits (more than any other state), may no longer be Bush's best opportunity.
Democrats worry most about Iowa and Wisconsin — with a combined 17 electoral votes, clutches of conservative Catholics and demographic profiles that turn more Republican every election.
Nearby is Minnesota, a lean-Kerry state that is nonetheless high on Bush's target list. Its rural communities and farthest suburbs are increasingly Republican.
Gore won Iowa by fewer than 5,000 votes, Wisconsin by 5,708 and New Mexico — the fourth Democratic tossup state — by just 366. Hard-fought turf for Kerry to protect.
"I'd rather be on our side of the chess board than theirs," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "But folks on both sides of the board are sweating bullets."