When the locations for the presidential and vice presidential debates were first selected, all were in states expected to be among the most competitive battlegrounds in the nation: Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Arizona.
Yet with the debates now fast approaching, the electoral map has changed. Today, Arizona looks safe for President Bush, and Missouri increasingly appears to be as well. Ohio is still competitive, but is an uphill fight for Sen. John Kerry. Only Florida remains a true tossup.
It's just one example of how the playing field has contracted and shifted as the presidential race enters its most intense phase. In part, it reflects an inevitable winnowing as campaigns make tough choices about where to allocate a limited pool of resources in the final weeks.
Demographic shifts and changing conditions on the ground have allowed a handful of new states - and regions - to emerge from under the radar as this year's most contested battlegrounds. Specifically Mr. Bush is now looking to take some states in the upper Midwest from Mr. Kerry's column, while Kerry may have an opening in some Southwestern and Western states, along with New Hampshire.
But above all, both campaigns are zeroing in on the states with the biggest electoral payoffs - which this year, once again, means the election could come down to Florida and its 27 electoral votes.
The state remains, in the estimation of many analysts, the closest in the nation. And the fact that it has lately been wracked by four hurricanes - leaving many voters paying no attention to politics - only adds to its unpredictability.
"Any way I look at it, Kerry has to win Florida," says independent pollster Dick Bennett. "If he can win Florida and [hold] Pennsylvania, he will win the electoral college. It's that simple. And if he can't win Florida and Pennsylvania, he won't be able to win some of the other close states either."
Overall, Bush seems to have an edge in more battleground states, with polls showing him solidifying his lead in many "red" states he won in 2000 and forcing Kerry to defend more of the "blue" turf. Gone are the days when the Kerry campaign boasted about expanding the playing field to places like Arkansas and Louisiana - states in which, like Missouri, the campaign is no longer spending money on advertising. By contrast, the Bush campaign has lately suggested it might try to challenge Kerry in more Democratic-leaning states such as Washington and even New Jersey.
"The reason the reds are redder is because the president has consolidated his base. And the blues are purpler because Kerry has not," says independent pollster John Zogby.
Still, Kerry has managed to hold onto a decent lead in Michigan, probably removing it from the most competitive group of battlegrounds. And analysts say Kerry still has the most room to improve his position - especially if he performs well in the debates. In many battleground states that now tilt toward Bush, pollsters note, voters remain unhappy with his performance on most issues aside from the war on terrorism.
One of the most notable trends to emerge overall has been the president's strength in the traditionally progressive upper Midwest, where the growth of suburbs and exurbs has given the Republican Party a new foothold. Many polls now show Bush pulling ahead of Kerry in states like Wisconsin and Iowa, and running close to even with him in Minnesota. Bush may be a better cultural fit with voters in that region than Kerry, say strategists, while the loss of jobs has not been as sharp as in some other Midwestern states such as Ohio and Michigan.
At the same time, Democrats have maintained competitiveness in parts of the Southwest and West, where strategists believe Kerry has a decent shot at taking Nevada and expanding on Al Gore's narrow win in New Mexico. The sleeper state of the year, some Democrats add, could be Colorado (although the Kerry campaign recently pulled its advertising there), where demographic changes - including a fast-growing Hispanic population, and what Mr. Zogby calls a growing "yuppie" class - have given Democrats a potential opening.
To some observers, those regional changes may mark the beginnings of a more permanent, long-term shift.
"We're seeing a realignment," says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "Years from now, people will look back and probably see this more as a transition election than a defining election," he adds. "Which makes it so hard to figure out what's going on now."
Many states have been changing so fast demographically - such as Florida - that it becomes almost impossible for the campaigns to attain a clear grasp of the political landscape, Mr. Carrick says.
And while polling provides a snapshot, analysts caution that state polls often either have small samples or tend to lag behind current trends. Likewise, the unprecedented grass-roots operations both parties have engineered in states such as Florida make it more difficult to predict exactly who will turn out to vote.
LEANING TO BUSH
North Carolina 15
Total electoral votes: 51
LEANING TO KERRY
Washington State 11
New Jersey 15
Total electoral votes: 54
UP FOR GRABS
New Hampshire 4
New Mexico 5
West Virginia 5
Total electoral votes: 123
Electoral votes secure for Bush: 157
Electoral votes secure for Kerry: 153
Needed to win: 270