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Familiar Ground May Be Election's Deciding Factor

By Dan Balz and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 15, 2008

When the general election began a few months ago, Barack Obama's advisers talked optimistically about dramatically redrawing the electoral map. Their optimism remains, but as the campaign heads into its final 50 days, strategists for both parties say the election is likely to be decided on mostly familiar ground.

As in the past two campaigns, four big states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Florida -- are expected to dominate the attention of the candidates. Democrats won the first two in both 2000 and 2004; Republicans won the other two both times.

Additionally, there will be battles in a group of smaller states now seen by the campaigns as most vulnerable to shifting sides. Five states that went for President Bush in 2004 are now high on the list of potential Obama states: Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Two states that went for Sen. John F. Kerry are top targets of McCain's campaign: Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

Both candidates brought their campaigns to New Hampshire this weekend, signaling the importance of a state with just four electoral votes. Four years ago, the Granite State was one of three states in the country that switched allegiance between the campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

Obama advisers say they still have their sights on a number of Republican strongholds, among them Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota. With the benefit of a massive fundraising operation -- the Obama campaign announced Sunday it raised a record $66 million in August -- and huge numbers of volunteers, the Democratic nominee has the luxury to compete in states this fall that past campaigns would have had to abandon.

But Republicans and some Democratic strategists not associated with the Obama campaign say the overall electoral map has become more familiar in the past few weeks. One reason is McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Her choice has helped to harden some of the red-and-blue political divisions of past years, dampening Obama's hopes of picking off some solid GOP states.

Reviewing the state of play a week after the Republican convention ended, McCain pollster Bill McInturff declared: "Obama's campaign's effort to extend the electoral map has largely failed. We once again have a pretty conventional and expected list of tossup states that will decide the election."

Steve Hildebrand, deputy campaign manager for Obama, disagreed, saying there has been no contraction of the Democratic nominee's ambitions to provide as many avenues as possible to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. "Other than Alaska being much less likely to be a competitive state because of Sarah Palin, we have not seen any reason to believe that we should shrink the map," he said.

But Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who played key roles in the last two presidential elections, said of the electoral map, "I think it's going to look a lot like 2000 and 2004."

Palin's selection has brought a surge of energy and enthusiasm to a Republican base that had been tepid toward McCain, and Democrats say they have seen the effect in polls that have shown McCain gaining ground since the end of his convention.

"I think one of the things driving the national polls is that the red states are redder," said David Axelrod, one of Obama's closest advisers. "In the battleground states, the race has held pretty firm."

Several Obama advisers said over the weekend that they are beginning to see McCain's post-convention bounce dissipate. McCain's advisers, however, said that although some softening is likely, they believe Palin's impact already has been real.

A McCain adviser argued that the impact of Palin is being felt both in GOP strongholds and in battleground states, especially in rural areas, where she has made a very positive first impression. If that holds, it could complicate Obama's hopes of picking off Ohio or Missouri. He won the latter in the primaries, but it voted for Bush in the past two elections.

Privately, some Obama advisers see Missouri as very difficult to win, unless they can massively mobilize new and existing voters in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.

Obama's campaign still sees opportunities in states such as Georgia and North Carolina, principally because of their efforts to register new voters and through a massive organizational effort to turn out registered voters who stayed home in the past. The campaign has spent almost $3 million on television ads in Georgia and has seen voter rolls grow by almost 400,000 since the beginning of the year.

"Do we think it's going to be one of the harder states to win? Yes," Hildebrand said. "Do we think it's winnable? Yes."

McCain's campaign has invested little in the state, believing that if Georgia goes for Obama in November, the election will be a landslide victory for the Democrat. McCain's team has husbanded its more limited resources and intends to remain disciplined in focusing on states it believes will decide the election.

"If we have to worry about Georgia in mid- to late October, we're going to get shellacked," a McCain adviser said.

But McCain's team says resources alone may not be enough for Obama. They note that the Democratic nominee spent more than $7 million on ads in Florida over the summer, at a time when their campaign was not advertising in the state, and did not significantly improve his standing.

Kerry won 252 electoral votes in 2004, so Obama needs to pick off some Bush states to win the election. The two likeliest are Iowa and New Mexico, although that would still leave him six short of 270.

Obama campaigned for a year in Iowa before winning the caucuses there last January while McCain largely ignored the state during nomination battles in both 2000 and 2008. A Des Moines Register poll released Sunday showed Obama leading McCain in Iowa 52 percent to 40 percent.

New Hampshire, however, could go the other way. McCain won the GOP primaries there in 2000 and in 2008 and is better known in New Hampshire than perhaps anywhere outside of his home state of Arizona. Obama campaigned hard there last year, but still lost the Democratic primary in January to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

New Hampshire took a sharp turn toward the Democrats two years ago, but McCain's popularity there could offset that advantage. New Hampshire strategists said over the weekend that independent voters, whom both McCain and Obama courted during their respective primaries, will decide the outcome in November, particularly the more than 100,000 independents who did not vote in either primary.

Obama hopes to pick off two other Western states to edge himself over the 270 mark, with his best chance seen in Colorado rather than Nevada. Colorado also has moved toward the Democrats since 2004, and Obama is counting on his organizational strength to pull him through there. But Republicans see Palin as someone who could help significantly in the Western states.

Virginia, too, has trended toward the Democrats in recent elections, making it ripe for a possible switch despite backing Republicans in every presidential race since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson carried it. McCain's team sees holding onto the state's 13 electoral votes as critically important.

McCain has fewer opportunities for switching states, but his first priority is to hold onto the two big battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio. His campaign has growing confidence that Florida will remain in their column. One Obama adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly, expressed pessimism about Florida but said the longer the Democrats can keep the state competitive, the more McCain may be forced to spend to defend it.

Ohio remains competitive because of the economy, but there are signs that Palin could help boost the vote in rural areas, where Obama was very weak in the primaries.

Republicans targeted Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2000 and 2004, only to come up short. Obama holds narrow leads in both, according to public polls. McCain's team sees opportunities, particularly in Pennsylvania, but both states could be difficult for the Republicans.

Another possible switcher for McCain is Wisconsin. Democrats won it in both 2000 and 2004, but it was one of the closest states in the nation both times. A poll yesterday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed a deadlocked race in Minnesota, but the McCain campaign is cautious about its chances there.

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