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I’ve never been great at math. But, at least since sixth grade, I have been pretty good at geography.

Maybe that’s why, no matter how the political winds blow, I keep going back to the Electoral College map. And I keep finding a map that, no matter how I cut it, is significantly more difficult for Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) to conquer than it is for President Bush. [IMGCAP(1)]

For all the talk about Bush’s problems in Ohio and Florida (and those problems are real), he still has more states to work with than does his opponent.

With between 35 and 40 states already locked in for either the Democratic nominee or the Republican standard-bearer, only 10 really are in play. In five states (Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon) the 2000 margin between Bush and Al Gore was less than one-half of 1 percent.

Gore carried all of those states but Florida, giving Bush a quartet of obvious targets that, like the Sunshine State, were virtual ties four years ago.

The president begins his re-election bid expecting to have 278 Electoral College votes locked up, while Kerry starts at 260. For Bush, that’s a gain of seven electoral votes over his 2000 total. The increase, of course, comes from reapportionment, which redistributed House seats — and electoral votes — after the 2000 Census.

Kerry has four obvious targets: Florida (27 electoral votes), New Hampshire (4), Missouri (11) and Ohio (20).

Little needs to be said about the importance or competitiveness of Florida. Bush’s 537-vote victory margin could have turned into a Gore victory depending on how votes were counted. Indeed, many believe that more Floridians went into the polls intending to vote for Gore than for Bush.

Of course, Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) easy re-election victory in 2002 is worth noting, since it contradicts the initial assumption that the state was so polarized and Democrats so angry that the governor would have a hard time holding on to his job. Either some George W. haters voted for Jeb or some stayed home.

Bush carried New Hampshire by less than 1.5 points, and veteran Republican activists in the state acknowledge that it is in play this year. But since the Granite State has only four electoral votes, it could go for Kerry and not change the outcome of the race.

Bush carried Missouri and Ohio by about 3.5 points each. Ohio’s loss of manufacturing jobs gives Kerry an obvious message in that state. And Missouri’s reputation as a bellwether — it has gone with the winner of the White House in 11 straight presidential contests — adds to its importance for the Democrats. But Kerry would need almost a 4 point swing to carry either state, and that’s a considerable margin in a polarized environment.

I suppose Democrats could try to pull Nevada (five electoral votes) from the GOP column, but Bush carried it in 2000 by more than Ralph Nader’s vote total, and a Massachusetts Democratic nominee might have trouble carrying the state under any circumstances.

The president’s political strategists have to know that Kerry’s options for adding 10 electoral votes are few (a 269-269 deadlock would favor the GOP nominee, since the Republicans currently hold a majority in 30 House delegations to the Democrats’ 16), so the Bush campaign can pour resources early on into the few states that he is at risk to lose.

Bush’s top take-away targets include three states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota), one in the Southwest (New Mexico) and one in the Northwest (Oregon). The arguments were so close in all but Minnesota that microscopic Bush gains could flip two or three of those states easily.

For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that Kerry starts with Gore’s 260 electoral votes and adds both Ohio and New Hampshire. That would drop Bush down to 254 Electoral College votes. He’d need 15 additional ones to get back to 269, which would throw the contest into the House, where the Republican would have an advantage.

Bush could get to 15 electoral votes in any number of ways. Gore’s two narrowest wins were in New Mexico, which he won by less than one-tenth of 1 percent, and Wisconsin, which he won by less than one-quarter of a point. Together, those states would have the 15 electoral votes that the president would need.

Obviously, all of these preliminary calculations will need to be changed as events unfold. But the 2004 presidential contest really isn’t a national race. It’s an election in 10 or 12 key states.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report

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