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Bush, Kerry open battle for White House
Updated: 2004-03-04 09:47

U.S. President Bush versus John Kerry. What promises to be a contentious eight-month battle for the White House opened Wednesday with the incumbent buffeted by dangers in postwar Iraq and the loss of jobs at home, yet holding the upper hand on money and Electoral College math.

Partisans from both parties are already fretting over their candidate's chances.

"President Bush has the best odds, but incumbency has its disadvantages, too," said Tom Slade, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "There's four years of record to throw rocks at, and I've often debated with myself over which I would rather be ! the incumbent or challenger."

"This election might settle that question," Slade said with a sigh, "for better or worse."

If so, it may be settled in Florida and 15 states that Bush won or lost by 5 percentage points or fewer in 2000 ! the Midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin; the Northwest's Washington and Oregon; Pennsylvania, Maine and New Hampshire in the Northeast; Western states Nevada and New Mexico, and the South's Tennessee and Arkansas.

Tennessee may be the only 2000 battleground that doesn't qualify. If Al Gore couldn't win his Republican-leaning home state, Kerry probably won't, Democratic and GOP strategists said.

Two states Bush won by just 6 percentage points ! Arizona and West Virginia ! could be more competitive this year.

"The Hispanic influence, as well as massive immigration from California, has moderated the politics of this state," said state Sen. Ken Cheuvront, an Arizona Democrat.

In his first ad blitz, an extraordinary US$10.5 million buy, Bush is targeting voters in 16 battleground states from 2000 ! minus Tennessee but plus West Virginia and Arizona. In a show of strength, he's even running ads in the traditionally Democratic state of Delaware, which Gore won by double digits in 2000.

"We know this election is going to be decided in a limited number of states in the Electoral College and we've made decisions based on that," said Matthew Dowd, the campaign's chief strategist.

Changes in the Electoral Map favor Bush. The president won 30 states four years ago, worth 271 electoral votes in 2000. Reapportionment has increased their value to 278, without a vote being cast.

Kerry's base consists of 11 states plus the District of Columbia won most easily by Gore in 2000, worth 168 electoral votes Nov. 2.

Besides those Democratic strongholds, Kerry's strategists believe he can add Michigan, Washington state and Maine to pass the 200-vote threshold. Claimed by Gore in 2000, they may be the ripest Democratic targets among all tossup states, but Bush is competing hard for them.

The next tier of Kerry targets are even tougher: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Winning all six, no easy task, would put Kerry within striking distance of the coveted 270 electoral votes.

He would still need to win at least one of the most competitive states ! Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Ohio and Florida are among the targets.

Other Southern tossup states may come into play for Kerry, but only if he's doing unexpectedly well everywhere else. Martha Dixon of the Democratic National Committee gave Bush a good shot in Arkansas.

"With all his problems, he's still the president ! and that counts for something," Dixon said. "He gets to fly around the country on his big plane and talk big talk."

Money may be Bush's biggest edge. He has raised more than $150 million, shattering his own record and giving him easy cash to try to define Kerry as a soft-on-terrorism, tax-raising, flip-flopping liberal.

The president's campaign laid the groundwork Wednesday for TV attack ads, accusing the Democrat of waging "a relentlessly negative campaign" against Bush this year. The president's initial TV ads portray Bush as the nation's caretaker in troubled times.

Kerry, who raised US$1 million since wrapping up the nomination, is still far behind Bush in the dollar dash. He must count on the Democratic National Committee and independent interest groups to help him compete.

The presumptive nominee also must retool his message for the general election, perhaps soften the rough edges of his criticism of Bush. Aides are planning a series of policy speeches for Kerry, who may travel overseas to burnish his image.

Most national polls show Kerry ahead or tied with Bush. In a race determined state by state, polls in the individual battlegrounds reflect a tight race.

Surveys also reveal lingering concern over the economy and Iraq, no surprise to Republican state lawmaker Tom Murphy of Kennebunk, Maine. "If things happen in a positive way, Kerry's campaign is over. If they don't ...," he said, his voice trailing off.

Slade argued that Kerry will be easy to cast as a liberal, but, "He has a very impressive war record. He speaks with authority and is going to be a very competitive challenger."

Democratic Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio, said he worries that Kerry may look too much like a creature of Washington. "The more time he spends in the heartland, in Ohio, the better off he's going to be," Coleman said.

J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican state senator in Maryland, gave Bush the nod on leadership and appeal, but said of Kerry, "He seems like a personable guy. You know, this could be close."

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