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CNN: Bush holds slight lead in Electoral College

Tight race in some states

From John Mercurio and Molly Levinson
CNN Political Unit

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- President Bush heads into the Republican National Convention next week with a small lead over Democratic challenger John Kerry in the all-important Electoral College, according to a new CNN analysis of state polling, advertising buys and interviews with campaign strategists and neutral analysts.

Bush would receive 274 electoral votes to Kerry's 264 if the election were held today, less than 10 weeks before November 2 and three days before the opening of the GOP convention in Madison Square Garden. If Kerry were to pick up a state as small as Nevada, the electoral vote would be tied, throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

CNN's political unit compiled the electoral map after reviewing state polls and conducting extensive interviews with pollsters from both campaigns, as well as local political reporters, strategists and consultants.

The map bears a remarkable resemblance to the results of the 2000 election, in which Bush defeated Al Gore by just five electoral votes and lost the popular vote. Bush remains strong in the South, the prairie and mountain states. Kerry leads in his native Northeast and on the West Coast. The two candidates continue to battle evenly in industrial Midwest states.

Bush is carrying every state he carried four years ago -- except New Hampshire, which has four electoral votes.

In New Hampshire, which Bush won by 7,211 votes four years ago, Kerry, a native of adjacent Massachusetts, is benefiting from high name recognition and the widespread coverage he received during the state's primaries.

Kerry won the primary in January after scoring a come-from-behind victory over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses one week earlier.

About a dozen states remain extremely competitive and are widely considered too close to call. Leading that list are Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Missouri, where Bush holds a narrow lead, as well as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania, which now lean toward Kerry.

West Virginia and Arizona are also competitive, but Democrats concede that those state now fall into the Bush column. Likewise, Oregon and Washington state could ultimately back either candidate, but Kerry is currently building a strong base of support in the Pacific Northwest.

The race in Ohio remains extremely fluid, and both campaigns remain highly organized in the Buckeye State. All four principals -- and most of their wives -- have campaigned there at least once over the past two weeks.

The state's industrial base has been hard hit by job losses and, Democrats say, voters have grown disenchanted with the Republicans' control of both state and federal government. These days, Republican Gov. Bob Taft's approval rating hovers near or below 40 percent.

"That's what you have in Taft and what people are seeing nationally -- a very strongly negative feeling there about the Republican Party," a Democratic strategist said.

Republicans concede that Columbus, Ohio, a normally Republican area, is trending more Democratic. Also, Cincinnati has not been performing as well for Republicans as it has in the past.

In Florida, Bush is aided by one of the nation's strongest economies and best job markets. He also has a strong surrogate in his brother, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who won re-election by 13 points two years ago and remains highly popular.

Bush-Cheney aides say the Bush brothers help each other with different demographics: The governor does better among younger voters, the president performs better among older voters.

Democrats say they're focusing on turnout in Miami-Dade County, a party stronghold that contains nearly one-fifth of the state's population and where Gore-Lieberman failed to generate a strong turnout four years ago.

The CNN survey reveals some interesting trends as the campaign nears the crucial Labor Day checkpoint.

For example, less than two months after Kerry chose Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate in part to challenge Bush's lock on the South, his campaign has made few inroads into any state south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Kerry last month pulled TV ads his campaign was running in Arkansas, Virginia and Louisiana, and strategists now concede they have little chance of carrying those states. Part of Kerry's problem, aides say, has been a failure to generate support among a large segment of the African-American vote, particularly in states like Louisiana.

The one exception to this trend is North Carolina, which has voted for the GOP presidential nominee every year since 1964. Bush still leads there, aided by a strong base of social conservatives. But Kerry's selection of Edwards has helped him cut into Bush's lead.


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