Even before the balloons and confetti rained down on the GOP faithful in Madison Square Garden, the Bush campaign was claiming victory, after a fashion. With several polls showing that the President had erased Democrat John Kerry's small lead, the President's supporters declared that the dynamic in the race now favored George W., not a rival who had spent much of August in a defensive crouch. "We're where I thought we'd be on the day after Labor Day," says chief Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
Yet as Dowd knows, it's not the popular vote that counts, since state-by-state Electoral College numbers determine the winner. And big mo' or no, Bush still faces a tough job of reaching the magic number of 270 electoral votes. Indeed, efforts to piece together an electoral majority have been complicated by a series of local political obstacles in key battlegrounds. The challenges range from wobbly state economies to demographic shifts and not-in-my-backyard environmental fights.
Just look at Nevada, which Bush won by 3.5 percentage points in 2000. A recent influx of Latinos and others from California has transformed a traditionally Republican state into a toss-up. But the factor that could tip the balance is the wildly unpopular federal nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2000, Bush capitalized on local ire by declaring that, as President, he wouldn't O.K. dumping to any site "unless it's been deemed scientifically safe." Two years later, Bush signed a bill to designate Yucca as a nuclear waste repository, setting off vociferous local protests. And now Kerry insists he will never allow the feds to bury waste in the Silver State.
Demographic shifts also have changed the political landscape in Florida. New residents from the North and non-Cuban immigrants from the Caribbean are quickly tilting the state toward the Democrats. Since 2000, there's been a 30% increase in the Hispanic voting-age population -- nearly all of it non-Cuban, notes Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. To overcome the Dems' gains, Republicans have redoubled efforts to register conservative Christians and pro-Bush Cuban Americans.
While newcomers are cause for Republican concern in Nevada and Florida, economic woes have created tighter-than-expected races in Ohio and North Carolina. In the Buckeye State, Bush is on the defensive because of the loss of 170,000 manufacturing jobs during his Presidency. "Ohio is an economically driven state frustrated with the pace of the recovery," says conservative analyst Frank I. Luntz. To overcome econo-angst, the Bush campaign is stressing "values issues" that favor the GOP, particularly Bush's opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
That's also how the President is hoping to hold North Carolina, a state he carried in 2000 by 13 percentage points but which is much closer this year. The continuing decline of the textile industry, which has shed thousands of jobs, is mostly to blame. But the Vice-Presidential candidacy of John Edwards, son of a retired North Carolina mill worker, is hurting, too. An Aug. 23 Zogby poll showed Kerry and Edwards running one percentage point ahead in the state. Nevertheless, top Bush lieutenants are unabashed in their upbeat assessment of local prospects. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, for instance, argues that tech and service jobs have more than compensated for the textile troubles. "North Carolina is a model example of our economy in America," Evans insists.
The values debate may work in Bush's favor in Ohio and North Carolina, but it could backfire in Pennsylvania. In the GOP-leaning Philadelphia suburbs, a large bloc of culturally liberal swing voters are turned off by the party's social conservatism. A vast majority of suburban women favor gun control and abortion rights, and many consider a constitutional ban on gay marriage unwise. An Aug. 2-15 Keystone Poll, a nonpartisan statewide poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, found that independents and moderates in the state favored Kerry over Bush by a 2-to-1 margin. The concerns about social issues shaved Bush's lead in economically conservative suburban Philly to just three percentage points -- trouble in an area where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2. "Bush needs to be ahead by 8 to 10 percentage points there to carry the state," says Keystone Poll director G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall.
Even if the suburban swing voters are lost, the Republicans aim to compensate for any defections in southeastern Pennsylvania by wooing culturally conservative gun owners in the depressed southwestern section of the state. That'll be a challenge: The Keystone Poll shows Kerry ahead there, 54% to 35%.
In the end, the best way for Bush to win swing states is to bump up the national vote by two or three percentage points. A good convention is a start toward that goal. But Team Bush knows that it can't afford to ignore community concerns along the way. This year, as Dowd notes, "A few hundred votes in a few states can make a lot of difference."
By Richard S. Dunham in New York