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Nebraska Becomes Unlikely Battleground

Gill Cromwell, left, joins Wolf as they canvass a working-class Omaha neighborhood. Nebraska awards its electoral votes by congressional district.
Gill Cromwell, left, joins Wolf as they canvass a working-class Omaha neighborhood. Nebraska awards its electoral votes by congressional district. (Photos By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

OMAHA, Oct. 5 -- With a month to go before Election Day, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, touched down here Sunday for an unexpected rally in a state that President Bush won by 22 percentage points in 2004.

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In early September, even as it was shifting resources out of other traditionally Republican states to key electoral battlegrounds, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign sent 15 paid staffers to Nebraska, a state that has backed a Democrat for president just once since 1936.

Despite Nebraska's consistent preference for a Republican in the Oval Office, Obama and the national mood are forcing Sen. John McCain to focus more on the state's biggest city and most urban congressional district.

Both camps have their eyes on the same reward: a single electoral vote that could prove pivotal in determining the next president.

Nebraska is one of only two states that award electoral votes by congressional district, rather than on a winner-take-all basis. Obama strategists see an opportunity in the 2nd District, where disaffection with Washington and strong Democratic voter-registration efforts are narrowing the Republican advantage.

If Obama pulls an upset in this district, regardless of what happens in the rest of Nebraska, he will pick up one electoral vote toward the 270 needed to win.

Among the scenarios that strategists have spun out, both sides see the possibility of an unprecedented tie in the electoral college. If Obama won Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, for instance, and the rest of the map remained the same as in 2004, the race would be knotted at 269 to 269. The same would be true if Obama won Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado while McCain picked up New Hampshire.

Obama's Nebraska strategy is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of his campaign's determination to expand the electoral map to open as many paths as possible to win the White House. The approach has had mixed results: Traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado appear within reach, while efforts in North Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Georgia have fizzled.

"One of the keys is going to be stretching the map. If we can put all of these states into play, that will make a difference," said Jon Carson, Obama's national field director. The more competitive Obama can be, he said, the more traditionally Republican territory McCain will be forced to defend, at a cost in time and money.

The McCain campaign announced its own one-vote strategy Thursday when it said it would move field organizers to Maine in a last-minute attempt to win the largely rural 2nd Congressional District. The move to the only other state that splits its electoral votes came as McCain gave up on Michigan, one of a handful of Democratic states that he had hoped to win.

Republicans have scoffed at the notion that Obama can pick off a congressional district in Nebraska, which has never split its vote.

"Ain't going to happen," said Dave Boomer, campaign manager for Rep. Lee Terry (R), winner of five straight 2nd District races. Boomer predicted that, late one mid-October night, Obama state director John Berge "will call his staff in and say: 'We're pulling out. We're going to Scranton.' "


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