A year out from the 2012 presidential election, it’s clear that President Obama will face one of the most challenging political environments in modern times.

But, predictions of doom and gloom for the incumbent may be slightly overstated when you consider the electoral map on which the race will play out where Obama still retains an advantage.

As we wrote in our Monday Fix newspaper column:

To understand how Obama can maintain that edge — despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of the job he is doing — you need to start with the fact that he won 365 electoral votes in 2008, the largest haul since President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection.

Obama won three states — Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia — that no Democrat had carried at the presidential level in at least two decades, and he scored victories in six other states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio) that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Those nine states will account for 112 electoral votes in 2012 and stand at the center of the fight for the presidency.

If Obama loses every one of them but holds on to the others he won, he will drop to 247 electoral votes and Republicans will win the White House. (The decennial reapportionment of congressional districts after the 2010 Census subtracts six electoral votes from states Obama won in 2008.)

But with the exception of Indiana and its 11 electoral votes, Obama is very much in the game in those states. In several, even Republicans acknowledge that he is favored.

In New Mexico (five electoral votes) and Iowa (six electoral votes), Obama has an edge.

New Mexico’s substantial Hispanic population — and Obama’s dominance among that community in 2008 — makes it a tough pickup for Republicans.

Iowa is more competitive — Republicans won the governorship there in 2010 — but Obama has long had a connection to the state that his advisers think is lasting and strong.

Assuming Obama can win those two states again — and hold the 19 other states he won that also went to the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), in 2004 — he would be just 12 electoral votes shy of 270.

That means Obama would need to win only one of the following states to be reelected: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio or Virginia. (If he won Virginia and lost Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, his electoral vote total would stand at 271 — the same number Bush won in 2000.)

That Obama could win a second term by winning the 19 states Kerry won in 2004 plus just three more states — Iowa, New Mexico and Virginia — is, frankly, somewhat remarkable given the struggles he has experienced over his first term in office.

Of course, several of the 19 states that went for Kerry and Obama in 2004 and 2008, respectively, look to be somewhat problematic in 2012 for Democrats.

Republicans won the governor’s race and a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania in 2010, for example, and then President George W. Bush took 49 percent in the Keystone State in 2004.

Ditto Wisconsin where Republicans elected a governor and U.S. Senator in 2010 and where Bush came within a hair’s breadth of winning in 2000 and 2004.

Those vulnerabilities — and they are not insignificant vulnerabilities — notwithstanding, it’s clear from a look at the state-by-state electoral map that there is reason for optimism among Democrats as they look ahead to next November.

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