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Presidential Horse Race Headed for a Photo Finish

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- One of the Democrats' biggest boasts in this election year is that they are going to sweep a number of Republican red states in their campaign to win back the White House.

Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean has installed squads of fulltime, paid campaign workers in all 50 states in pursuit of this goal. Sen. Barack Obama, whose lead in the delegate count is based in large part on his strong crossover primary victories in the deepest red states, asserts that he is the only candidate who can break the GOP's electoral lock in the West and South.

Hillary Clinton's strategists make similar claims, saying that her support among Latinos will tip Democratic-leaning Western states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada into the Democrat column in November. Indeed, President Bush struggled in these and some Midwestern states in his 2004 victory over John Kerry. He carried New Mexico and Iowa by less than 1 percent, narrowly won Ohio by 2.1 percent, Nevada by 2.6 percent, and Colorado by 4.7 percent -- five states that could have denied Bush a second term.

"Democrats have been having hopeful feelings for some years now about their prospects in some of these red states and I think they will make a big play for them this time," said Rhodes Cook, a veteran election analyst who tracks electoral trends.

But Sen. John McCain's advisers say the Democrats' claims of strength in these and other red states are exaggerated. He is not only a man of the West but runs strongly among Hispanics, and is popular in the South.

"McCain is a westerner, who won 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last reelection, and he'll run strongly in the Hispanic community in states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico," said Charlie Black, McCain's senior campaign strategist.

"So this Western strategy Democrats have been touting will not come to pass. They will look at states in the South with large African-American populations and that makes sense, but at the outset I don't see Obama carrying any Southern states," Black told me.

Bush carried all of the Western mountain and plains states in 2004 from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande, winning most by double digits. He swept the entire South with similarly large margins, drawing 70 percent of the white vote to Kerry's 29 percent.

"So if Obama is the nominee, he would have to run quite a bit better among white voters," said Merle Black, the respected political scholar who has written widely on the South.

Still, "this should be a Democratic year and McCain has certainly not consolidated the conservative vote and I don't think he is going to get 70 percent of that Southern vote," the Emory University professor told me. "But the Republicans could run weaker than four years ago and still carry significant majorities among white voters in the South. They've got some cushion that allows for a drop-off in support."

Meanwhile, the Democrats will also have to play defense in a number of vulnerable blue states where McCain's crossover appeal, especially among independents, puts them at risk. They include Wisconsin, which Kerry won by a razor-thin 0.4 percent of the vote; New Hampshire, which he carried by a scant 1.3 percent margin; Pennsylvania, by just 2.5 percent; Michigan by 3.4 percent; and Minnesota by 3.5 percent.

"The industrial frost belt states were all close in 2004. Kerry did not win them by more than three or four points. I think those would be tossups," Cook said.

"The very nature of the McCain candidacy is that he's been seen as less of a Republican than any of the other potential GOP nominees this year. That's always been one of his assets when he gets into the general election," he said.

McCain campaign strategists point to head-to-head polls that show the Arizonan competitive in some of the Democrats' bluest states, including California, New Jersey and even New York. But the McCain campaign's high command has no illusions about the bleak economic and political environment they will face in the fall. Charlie Black foresees a narrowly decided, hard-fought election shaping up, no matter who the Democrats nominate.

"The country is structurally set for close elections these days, I expect a close one," he said.

The political wild card in all this is the looming possibility of a bitter fight at the Democratic convention between Hillary and Obama that could split the party and damage its chances in November.

Multiple battles are shaping up. One over the superdelegates who are being asked by Clinton to vote independently, even if that means rejecting their state party's primary vote for Obama. And another over the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations that national party officials do not recognize as legal.

Whenever the Democrats had a divisive nominating fight in 1968, 1972 or 1980, they lost.

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