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Size of Battleground May Be Smaller Than Expected

Kerry strategists see Ohio as ripe for Democrats because the state lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years. But Bush has drawn enthusiastic crowds in rural areas, where he performed well in 2000 and will have to again to carry the state.

"Four years ago, there was a debate in the Gore campaign about whether to even compete in Florida," Devine said. At this time in 2000, "Gore had 20 paid staffers in Florida. Today, there are 20 offices opened across the state."

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But Kerry has troubles in states that Gore won. Pennsylvania appears more competitive than it was four years ago. Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes, was one of the closest states in 2000 and remains a problem for Kerry, with Democrats worried about his soft support in the Milwaukee area and among Roman Catholics.

Kerry strategists believe they can take back New Hampshire (four electoral votes), but West Virginia and Nevada (five electoral votes each) remain challenges.

There are several unpredictable factors. One is whether Bush's convention bounce proves any more durable than Kerry's. Strategists are betting Bush will lose some of what he gained -- some polls already show that happening -- but that he will have a lead at the edge of the margin of error nonetheless. Another factor is outside events, which have played a significant role in this election and up to now have generally worked against the president.

The third factor is a state that surprises everyone. Four years ago, few thought Bush could win West Virginia until the end of the election, and its five electoral votes proved decisive. (In 1996, only President Bill Clinton among his advisers thought he had a chance of winning Florida, but he did.)

Among the other considerations they will be making in the coming weeks, strategists on both sides will have to take some gambles. Kerry, for example, still has his eye on North Carolina, the home state of his running mate, John Edwards. The Bush team sees the upper Midwest as fertile territory and will run hard at traditionally Democratic Minnesota, as well as Iowa and Wisconsin.

The campaigns know that big events such as the debates and what happens in Iraq will influence the outcome on Nov. 2, but so will the choices Bush and Kerry make in coming weeks as they piece together their electoral map strategies.

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