October's big sport is counting electoral votes

The US map becomes a political chess board, as candidates try to secure the states they need to win.

In this tight race, gazing at lists of states and calculating how strongly each leans for either of the major presidential candidates can be great sport.

Does Tennessee really still "lean Gore," as one of the latest scorecards indicates, or is it possible the Volunteer State might actually vote against its favorite son, Vice President Al Gore, as the latest polls out of Tennessee show?

And can it be that Mr. Gore might take Florida, the fourth-largest state, where the brother of the Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is also governor? The latest polls show Mr. Bush and Gore in a dead heat there. Were Gore to win the Sunshine State, that would reflect a national swing toward Gore that puts him in the White House, analysts from both parties say.

With less than a month to go before the 2000 elections, these state-by-state snapshots of the presidential race offer a crucial look at who might actually win the race. Nationwide polls, which have shifted slightly toward Bush in the past week, show the broad trend in opinion. But because the presidential race is really decided by the Electoral College - people chosen by the voters of each state to elect the president - the election in effect boils down to 25 states instead of 50.

That's a lot of states to have "in play" this close to the election. And 11 of them are pure tossups, according to the latest analysis by Charles Cook, one of the nation's top political handicappers. Eight states lean Gore and six lean Bush.

Under the electoral-college system, where it's winner take all in each state, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes - at least 270 - to win the presidency.

On the West Coast, Washington and Oregon "should be in the Democrats' pocket, but they're in play," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. One factor has been Green Party nominee Ralph Nader's strong showing in those states.

Mr. Zogby's latest national poll shows Bush ahead of Gore by one point, 43 percent to 42 percent, and Mr. Nader at 5 percent. The Washington Post/ABC poll released yesterday shows a small swing toward Bush, who now leads Gore 48 percent to 45 percent, with Mr. Nader at 3 percent and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan at less than 1 percent.

Bush's minisurge, in a race that has turned into a seesaw marathon, is a result of the post-game analysis of the first presidential debate last week in Boston, in which Gore was faulted for sighing audibly and interrupting Bush. (Analysis of debate No. 2, last night in Winston Salem, N.C., will appear in tomorrow's Monitor.)

Soon, the state polls - and therefore the electoral map - will likely catch up to this national trend, analysts say. But Mr. Cook warns that it's "foolish" to rely just on state polls to gauge each candidate's state-by-state strength. In putting together his scorecard, Cook relies not only on current state polls, but voting patterns from previous elections and private, unpublished polling by Senate, gubernatorial, and congressional campaigns.

One of the most fascinating states to watch this year is Florida, which went President Clinton's way in 1996, but voted for President Bush, father of the two Governors Bush, in 1992.

"Florida has historically been a high split-ticket-voting state," says Susan MacManus, a political analyst at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Three state cabinet positions are held by each party and the two Senate seats are split between the two parties. While the current governor, Jeb Bush, is a Republican, his predecessor was a Democrat. And a Democrat is favored to replace the retiring Sen. Connie Mack.

Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, have spent a lot of time in Florida, which Ms. MacManus says has reenergized the state's Democrats. Also, an influx of new residents has boosted the percentage of independent voters, who are up for grabs.

In the end, though, she believes Bush will win the state, because of Bush's popularity with the state's largely Cuban, conservative Hispanic community. To make up for the Hispanic support Bush is winning - about 10 points more than Clinton won - Gore would have to see a boost in African-American turnout, which she doesn't expect.

Another tossup state that analysts predict for Bush is Ohio. Bush's centrist message works in a Middle American state like Ohio, says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

"Bush looks a lot like the sitting governor, Bob Taft, and the former governor, George Voinovich," says Professor Green, who notes that the most recent Ohio polls put Bush ahead there outside the margin of error.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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