President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, go into the final 48 hours of the 2004 presidential campaign within easy reach of an electoral majority, but neither has a clear advantage in the remaining handful of tossup states.
This year's election is a virtual rerun of the 2000 race, with many of the same states in the too-close-to-call category. But four years ago, Bush's route to an electoral majority was clearer than Al Gore's, while this year his path appears no easier than Kerry's, given the states still in play.
Bush has solid leads in 23 states with 197 electoral votes and is favored in four more, which could bring him to 227. Kerry is equally solid in 13 states with 178 electoral votes and is favored in five states, which would bring him to 232. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.
Six states -- Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico -- with 79 electoral votes could determine the winner. All are regarded as tossups by neutral observers and the two campaigns.
Democratic hopes of overturning the Republicans' shaky 51-vote majority in the Senate are unlikely to be realized. Democratic candidates would have to win all four tossup races and defeat one favored Republican to emerge with 50 seats and a tie that John Edwards could break if he and Kerry win. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) is fighting for his political life in South Dakota against former representative John Thune (R), a race that both sides expect to be won or lost by fewer than 2,000 votes.
In the House, few analysts see Republicans losing more than three seats net from their 24-seat majority or adding more than that number. But two prominent Republicans -- Christopher Shays of Connecticut, co-sponsor of campaign finance legislation, and Philip M. Crane of Illinois, a 35-year veteran, are in jeopardy.
The state-by-state analysis is based on reporting by Washington Post staff members traveling with the four presidential and vice presidential candidates and on assignment in nine states, along with private assessments from top Kerry and Bush strategists and interviews with dozens of other political players in Washington and around the country.
What makes this presidential election so difficult to call is the intensity of voter interest, reflected in swollen registration totals and long lines for early voting, combined with the most aggressive voter-mobilization efforts either party and its allies have ever mounted. Democrats in particular believe that their ground game may be decisive in the closest remaining states.
The other unknown is the potential impact of Osama bin Laden's Friday videotape message, which abruptly shifted headlines away from Iraq to terrorism and echoes of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's highest ratings come for his leadership against the terrorists, but there was no discernible shift to the president in polls taken during the first hours after the video aired.
Some Democrats fear that Bush may benefit from bin Laden's intervention, but until the tape appeared, Republicans complained that Bush was fighting against a tide of negative news developments -- brutal killings in Iraq, shortages of flu vaccine, investigations of Vice President Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, an impasse in Congress over reform of intelligence agencies and -- for most of the past week, headlines suggesting the administration had been negligent in allowing tons of Saddam Hussein's explosives to possibly fall into dangerous hands.
The Washington Post's latest tracking poll shows a deadlocked electorate, with Bush at 49 percent, Kerry at 48 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 1 percent, among likely voters. Most other polls show the race equally close, although a Newsweek poll put Bush up 50 to 44 percent among likely voters. A general movement toward one or the other candidate in the final hours could significantly alter the electoral map balance.
The candidates tried to tune their speeches to the shifting headlines as they campaigned in what they know to be the battleground states. From last winter on, both Bush and Kerry have targeted Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, believing that whoever wins two of them probably would be elected.
Despite more than 40 Bush visits, Pennsylvania has now tilted toward Kerry, and Republicans are fighting desperately to pump the vote in their central and southwestern areas of strength enough to make up for the Democratic margins in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Some public polls show the race tied, but insiders are skeptical Bush can prevail.
Other states that have moved from the pre-convention tossup category toward Kerry are Washington, Oregon, Maine and Michigan. Hawaii, once considered a Democratic certainty, has become a battleground in which Kerry is narrowly favored.