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AP: White House electoral race nearly tied
Updated: 2004-10-31 11:17

US President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are virtually tied in the Electoral College count, fighting over eight to 10 states so close and unpredictable that anything is possible Tuesday night.

After months campaigning and a half-billion dollars spent on attack ads, Bush and Kerry are still at the whim of unexpected events such as Osama bin Laden's sudden emergence on Friday, a videotape appearance that sent both candidates scrambling to pledge victory in the fight against terrorism.

"Under normal circumstances, undecided voters break against the incumbent this late in an election. However, these are not normal circumstances. This is a time of war," said Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell.

"The question then becomes, will this be different than most years? Will swing voters decide they don't want to change horses in midstream?" he said.

The answer comes in two days — or more, if there is a repeat of the 2000 recount — for a Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger who are marshaling two vastly different and unproven get-out-the-vote operations in the battleground states, principally Florida and in the Midwest.

Polls suggest the nation is evenly divided or leaning toward Bush, but the popular vote does not determine who wins the presidency. The White House goes to whoever earns 270 state electoral votes, a majority of the 538 available.

According to an Associated Press analysis, 26 states are solidly behind Bush or lean his way for 222 electoral votes. Kerry has 16 states plus the District of Columbia secured or leaning his direction for 211 electoral votes.

It is down to this: Bush needs to scrape together at least 48 of the remaining 105 electoral votes to keep his job. Kerry needs 59 to move into the White House.

The remaining 105 electoral votes are in the eight most competitive states: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and New Mexico.

Two other states fall just outside the toss-up category — Michigan and New Hampshire, both of which tilt slightly toward Kerry. An additional six to 12 states, including the slow-voting Democratic bastion of Hawaii, could come into play if neither Bush nor Kerry wins a clear majority of the popular vote.

It would take a modest burst of momentum, a swing of 3 or 4 percentage points, to produce a lopsided Electoral College victory for either Bush or Kerry.

The president narrowly took three of the toss-up states in 2000, when he lost the popular count to Democrat Al Gore but won the Electoral College with 271 votes. He claimed Ohio and Nevada on Election Day, and sweated out a 36-day recount before a Supreme Court ruling awarded him Florida and the White House.

Gore won Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Mexico, the latter three by fewer than 10,000 votes.

Among the toss-ups, the most important states are Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, with 68 electoral votes combined. Victory in any two of the three by either man would propel him toward victory.

With a bigger electoral base, Bush could lose two of the three and still make up for it with gains in the Upper Midwest. He's also hedging his bets with an 11th-hour push in Kerry-leaning states such as Michigan and Hawaii.

Each of the toss-up states presents different challenges for the two candidates.

Pennsylvania is Kerry's best state of the eight toss-ups.

"If I were a betting person, I would probably say that Kerry's ability to do well in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs will allow him to carry the state," said Jerome Maddox, political science assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the three Upper Midwest states, private polling for both campaigns shows Kerry with a small but steady lead in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, Kerry has had trouble with his political base, primarily blacks. Iowa figures to be the toughest Gore-won state for Kerry to retain.

Once-reliably Democratic, voters in the small towns and farthest suburbs of the Upper Midwest are leaving their party for the GOP. The three states along the Mississippi River combine for 27 electoral votes, the same as Florida's.

New Mexico, where Gore eked out a 366-vote victory, seems just as close now.

Among the three toss-up states that went GOP in 2000, Nevada may stick with Bush despite his support of a hated nuclear waste dump and the influx of Democrat-leaning Hispanics. But it offers just five electoral votes.

Both campaigns claim a slim lead in Florida, but public polls suggest Bush may have an edge. His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, enjoys high approval ratings. Democrats argue the immigration of non-Cuban Hispanics will put Kerry over the top, and a surge of early voting adds an element of unpredictability.

Ohio is tough for Bush. The state has lost 232,100 jobs since the president took office, and organized labor and other groups aligned with Kerry have mounted a paid turn-out-the-vote drive to compete with Bush's volunteer-driven effort.

In Ohio and elsewhere, Republicans fret privately over signs that Democratic turnout will be larger than they had expected.

Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says not to worry. "The worst place to be on Election Day is between a Republican voter and a voting booth," he said. Even so, the GOP has pledged to place thousands of supporters in selected precincts to be prepared to challenge voters they deem questionable.

In every state, voting blocs are showing signs of unpredictability.

Bush may increase his small share of black and Jewish votes, boosting his chances in Michigan, Florida and others. Young and Hispanic voters, who tend to slip below the radar of pollsters, could give Kerry winning margins in GOP-leaning states such as Colorado and Nevada.

"We're in uncharted territory," said Paul Beck, professor of political science and dean of the college of social and behavioral sciences at Ohio State University.

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