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Choosing the Right Partner

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It's safe to say that the state-by-state battleground on which this presidential campaign is being fought is defined more clearly, and earlier, than any other in modern history. Despite Sept. 11 and two wars, the terrain on which the 2004 campaign is being waged differs only slightly from the one on which the 2000 campaign was fought -- when one party won the popular vote by 543,895 votes out of 105,405,100 cast and the other party won the Electoral College, thanks to a 537-vote margin in one state.

Other than Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, where he lost but still did better than any other Democrat would likely have done, every state that was close in 2000 is expected to be close this time. Only a couple of states that were not close last time appear likely to be so this time. Perhaps nothing much has changed because the election was fundamentally a tie; each party has a blueprint of where it is, or at least where it was not long ago, and an idea of what it will need on November 2.

Look at the television ad buys for this year. Democrats, the John Kerry campaign, and the Media Fund,

the pro-Kerry independent group (Republicans would prefer to place quotation marks around "independent"), have been buying advertising in 17 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Initially, 16 states were targeted, but then Arizona was added.

Republicans have been advertising in precisely the same 17 states, plus Delaware. A top strategist for President Bush explained that once you are already buying in the expensive Philadelphia market to cover the heavily populated southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, you might as well run ads in the dirt-cheap Salisbury, Md., market and get the rest of Delaware.

This past week, the Kerry campaign added two more states -- Colorado and Louisiana -- to its playlist. Recent polls have shown Bush's hold on Colorado to be somewhat tenuous, partly because of a substantial influx of new residents from California and other states, along with a rising Hispanic population. Ken Salazar, a Latino and a popular Democratic state attorney general running for the Senate, is expected to help Democrats even more.

Louisiana is a bit more of a push. Although Bill Clinton carried the state twice and Democrats look surprisingly strong in the Senate race, an upset by Kerry would be a big surprise in the Bayou State. Democrats had talked of adding North Carolina to their list of target states, but that, too, seems to be a bridge too far.

Republicans have been pointing to New Jersey as a Democratic-leaning state that they might target. Recent polls offer mixed results on whether the attention is warranted, but both parties are already reaching the southern half of New Jersey by buying ad time in Philadelphia. For the GOP to make a real effort in New Jersey, however, is unlikely, because to do so requires buying horrendously expensive and highly inefficient New York City television advertising (covering New York City, downstate New York, and Connecticut). The Bush campaign can certainly find more-effective places to buy time.

The only remaining major X-factor in the makeup of battleground states is Kerry's choice for running mate. His selection could add a new state to the list or give Democrats a substantial edge in a state that already was on both sides' target lists.

If the experts know anything at all, it is that two vice presidential possibilities, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, are undergoing the full vetting process. Kerry has commissioned James Johnson, a longtime Washington veteran, to head the search for a running mate. Both Edwards and Gephardt sought the Democratic nomination earlier this year; Gephardt was killed, politically speaking, in what appeared to be a murder-suicide pact with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, during their Iowa caucus fight. Historically, the Iowa caucuses have been a fairly civil affair, but the two were running neck and neck for first place and attacked each other like scorpions, while Kerry and Edwards surged past them into first and second places, respectively.

The argument for Edwards is that he has all the charisma and ability to connect with voters that Kerry lacks, and that he adds an excitement and energy level that many in the party believe is sorely lacking. The downside is a looming uncertainty whether a Kerry-Edwards ticket could carry North Carolina, or whether there is any key state or demographic group that Edwards could definitely win over. According to some Democratic operatives, polling data for Kerry shows that Edwards does help Kerry across the country, particularly with independent voters. Another factor is that, reportedly, neither Kerry nor his wife likes Edwards. And Edwards's populist message may seem out of sync with a blue-blooded presidential nominee and his wealthy wife.

Gephardt is a far more conservative pick, and his life is an open book. He's the "Holiday Inn" candidate -- no surprises. Although Gephardt has never been a statewide elected official and is hardly a household name in Missouri, he should be good for an extra 40,000 votes or so, potentially enough to tip the balance in a state that is so competitive that, with the exception of 1956, it has gone with the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1900.

Although Edwards and Gephardt are the only ones who appear to be undergoing the full inspection as of now, at least two or three others -- maybe four or five -- probably will. The most buzz centers on Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, another swing state. Vilsack was raised in an abusive foster home yet became a successful trial lawyer and an elected official. His life story could be a good complement to Kerry's.

The list of "potential" running mates is huge and growing -- 65 in a recent issue of The Hotline -- with some names intriguing, like that of Rep. Jane Harman of California, and others ridiculous. Whoever suggested 86-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, despite all of the senator's many fine qualities, ought to have his or her pundit's license revoked.

One particularly interesting parlor game for the chattering class is the under-the-radar conversation about who cannot be picked because of skeletons in their closets, or perhaps in their spouses' closets. When certain names are mentioned, those in the know smile knowingly but shake their heads.

It's important to bear in mind that the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong on running mates. The favorites rarely get picked. Did anyone believe that Al Gore would pick Joe Lieberman in 2000, or that George W. Bush would ask Dick Cheney, the person he had already selected to chair his running-mate selection committee, to be the running mate? Who thought that Bob Dole would actually pick Jack Kemp in 1996, or that Bill Clinton would choose Gore in 1992? But whether a running mate makes any difference to the ticket is another question. Many analysts credit both Lieberman and Cheney with helping their respective tickets in 2000, but those men are perhaps the first running mates to do so since Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas helped his Massachusetts colleague, John F. Kennedy, win a number of Southern states in 1960.

Once Kerry picks a running mate, about the only big unknowns will be the state of the war in Iraq and the condition of the economy -- in particular, whether the turnaround in jobs that seemed to begin in March will continue through the year's critical second quarter. Historically, that period is the best predictor of presidential election outcomes.

 
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