Commentary: A Tricky Political Triage

Bush and Kerry find they must home in on just seven decisive swing states

For months voters have been told that the November election will be decided in 12 to 14 swing states. But as Campaign 2004 hits the homestretch, a new reality has dawned. For George W. Bush and John Kerry, the race has come down to a fight for little more than a handful of still-competitive states. Barring a pratfall in one of the last debates, a terror attack, or a major blowup in Iraq -- which could dramatically alter the race -- the man who nabs most of these states' electoral votes will win the Presidency.

Call them the Significant Seven: Florida, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. If the race remains tight and neither candidate moves solidly into the lead, these seven are where the action is. That's why both campaigns are juggling resources, pulling ads in states that are slipping away, and concentrating media and manpower where it can do more good.

Late-season triage is a hallmark of most campaigns. But it's a tricky business knowing when to fold the tent. Four years ago, Al Gore ditched Ohio for friendlier climes. But on Election Day, his populist message resonated, and Gore lost the state by a mere 3.5 percentage points, leaving political pros to ponder what might have been. The move "cost him the election," says GOP consultant Scott W. Reed.

Today, Bush and Kerry confront similar decisions -- where to play and where to pull out and disappoint state partisans. "This is the time when candidates get to the fork in the road," says Reed. "Targeting resources is the name of the game."

For Kerry that means scaling back what was once a 20-state campaign. The Democrat has pulled ads from Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia. Bush, who had a smaller list of showdown states, is paring his efforts in Washington and may soon have to decide if he should limit his activities in Michigan and Oregon.

Either Bush or Kerry can guarantee a win by capturing two of the "Big Three" toss-ups: Florida (27 electoral votes), Ohio (20), and Pennsylvania (21). But the President could still gain an Electoral College majority if he picks up just one of the three, sweeps the remaining four up-for-grabs states, and holds onto Wisconsin, which Gore narrowly carried in 2000. Kerry doesn't have that luxury: Running behind in once-promising states such as Missouri, he must carry Pennsylvania and one of the other Big Two to have a shot.

No place is getting more attention than Ohio, host of the Oct. 5 Vice-Presidential debate. Kerry has spent 26 days in the Buckeye State since January, opened 55 field offices, and hired 77 organizers. President Bush made the 27th trip of his Presidency to Ohio on Oct. 2 and has a huge organization there. Both candidates' TV ads saturate the airwaves. Ohio boasts four of the five top markets for Presidential commercials: Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

The Significant Seven give both candidates reason to cheer -- and worry. Kerry backers fret that the dwindling list of targets means that more Gore states are in play than former Bush bastions. But Republicans remain concerned because the President has not yet snagged two big 2000 trophies: Ohio and Florida.

What's more, Kerry has been out-polling Bush in the seven remaining winnable states. By comparing the candidates' performance in state polls since July 1 to national surveys taken at the same time, BusinessWeek found that in Florida, Kerry has tended to run 0.7 percentage points ahead of his nationwide backing. Kerry has picked up an extra 1.5 points in Iowa, 5.1 in New Hampshire, 5.3 in New Mexico, and 4.1 in Pennsylvania. Bush has run ahead of his national pace only in Ohio (by 2.5 points) and West Virginia (3.3). In a dead-heat election, that would give Kerry a slim Electoral College advantage.

Surely, seven is going to be someone's lucky number come Nov. 2. But with charges, countercharges, and the fog of war clouding the Presidential battlefield, it's too early to say whether Bush's or Kerry's final drive will succeed.

By Richard S. Dunham with Lee Walczak in Washington

— With assistance by Lee Walczak

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