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Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Matthew Dowd, the chief Bush campaign strategist, made the argument last Monday during the Republican convention that whichever presidential candidate wins two out of a crucial three states -- Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania -- will probably be the next president. The next day, without knowing about Dowd's prediction, former Clinton White House Political Director Doug Sosnik made the very same forecast.

While there are certainly other important battleground states, Dowd and Sosnik are likely to be right. The electoral votes in Florida (27), Ohio (20), and Pennsylvania (21) total 68, plenty more than the 52 electoral votes in the seven other states that can be considered toss-ups right now: Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11), Nevada (5), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), and Wisconsin (10).

Each state tells a somewhat different story. For example, in Pennsylvania, an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, President Bush was doing surprisingly well for a long time; then, about two months ago, John Kerry started pulling up and away. But in the past three weeks, Bush has pulled back up to a position of being basically even with Kerry, give or take a point or two.

In Ohio, Kerry was up a couple of points. Today, Bush is probably up by a point or two -- pretty amazing, given the economic beating that state has taken over the past few years. The state remains extremely close, with the economy and jobs the No. 1 issue.

In Florida, the economy has been fine; demographics are giving the Republicans fits. Today, Florida has more Democratic-voting Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans than it has Republican-voting Cuban-Americans. Florida, which was trending toward the GOP so reliably in the 1980s and early 1990s, is now headed back toward even-steven.

While the industrial states of Ohio and Michigan have been problematic for Republicans, three other states -- Wisconsin, Iowa, and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota -- have been targets of opportunity for the GOP. All three states were carried by Al Gore in 2000, albeit narrowly.

As in Florida, demographics are working against Republicans in Nevada and New Mexico because of the booming Latino population. Both are genuine toss-ups. It should be pointed out that Republicans have made considerable inroads into picking up support from upscale Mexican-Americans. But among Puerto Ricans, who are much more likely to be found in Florida than in the Southwest, Democratic strength has eroded very little. Finally, in New Hampshire, the war remains a problem for Bush. And the influx of non-native Granite Staters continues to dilute the flinty conservatism that dominated the state's politics for so long.

Going back to the original premise -- that whoever wins two out of those three, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will probably win the presidency -- I can make a case that Bush could withstand winning only one. Let's say for a moment that Kerry carried both Ohio and Pennsylvania, but Bush won Florida. Arguably, if the president were to pick off Iowa (7), Wisconsin (10), and New Mexico (5), totaling 23 electoral votes, he could undo the damage of losing either Ohio (20) or Pennsylvania (21).

Constructing a similar scenario for Kerry is more difficult. Missouri (11), where Bush has consistently held a narrow lead all year, seems to have tightened up in the last few weeks, running counter to the national trend. But that state is still more likely than not to go for Bush. While Kerry does have a pretty decent shot of picking off New Hampshire (4), and, to a slightly lesser extent, Nevada (5), both would still have to be added onto Missouri for him to compensate for losing two of the Big Three.

But then consider Maine (4), Michigan (17), and Oregon (7). All three of these states are currently leaning toward Kerry, but if Bush pulled even or ahead in any of them, it would probably mean that he was gaining ground pretty much everywhere. In short, if Bush can win any of these three, he probably won't need them, because he will have won most of the Big Ten already. The same argument applies to states on the "lean-Bush" side: Arizona (10), Colorado (9), North Carolina (15), and West Virginia (5). If Kerry forges ahead in any of these states, he's probably already wrapped up 270 electoral votes.

In the end, Dowd and Sosnik are probably right. From Labor Day on, expect to see each campaign and the 527 groups target their money where it matters most: more in the Big Ten, less in the Little Seven (the leaning states), and much more in the Very Big Three.

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