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Inside Politics

CNN survey: Bush widens lead in Electoral College

Kerry holds tenuous leads in six key states

From John Mercurio and Molly Levinson
CNN Political Unit

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Democratic Party
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush this week reached a symbolic milestone, overtaking Democratic challenger John Kerry in New Hampshire and Iowa to claim more than 300 electoral votes in CNN's weekly Electoral College scorecard.

If the election were held today, Bush would receive 301 electoral votes to Kerry's 237, according to a CNN survey based on state polling as well as interviews with campaign aides and independent analysts. A candidate wins the election with 270 electoral votes, regardless of the popular vote.

In three of the four weeks since he accepted the GOP nomination at Madison Square Garden on September 2, Bush has overtaken Kerry in one state Al Gore carried four years ago, a trend that forces Kerry's campaign into an increasingly defensive posture. Gore won Iowa by 1 percentage point in 2000 and lost New Hampshire by about the same margin.

Bush currently leads in 33 states, including the country's entire southern rim (except California) and the mountain and plains regions. Kerry leads in the District of Columbia and the remaining 17 states, including all of the West Coast and most of the Northeast. The two candidates continue to battle for control of the industrial Midwest.

Each week, CNN's political unit prepares a comprehensive analysis of the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup polling and public polling, combined with a look at turnout trends, interviews with strategists from both campaigns and parties, independent pollsters, and the latest campaign/party spending on advertising in the states.

Based on this careful and extensive analysis of all information, CNN allocates states to each candidate to determine the breakdown of the electoral college vote if the election were held today. The map is not a prediction of the Election Day outcome.

This week's map reflects the increasingly positive landscape Bush faces and, simultaneously, several trouble spots for Kerry.

Kerry holds tenuous leads in six key states that Al Gore carried: Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New Jersey, Michigan and Minnesota. Those states give Kerry a combined electoral tally of 73 electoral votes (Bush currently has one electoral vote in his column from Maine, which can split its votes between two candidates). Bush, meanwhile, is narrowly ahead in just two states -- Colorado and New Mexico, which have 14 electoral votes between them.

As polls continue to suggest a tightening race in Colorado, there are signs that Bush and Kerry could be forced to share the state's electoral votes this fall. Two new surveys suggest that state voters strongly support a ballot amendment that would distribute Colorado's electoral votes on the basis of its popular vote.

The amendment, if it passes, would take place retroactively, so it would have an impact on this election. The latest poll in Colorado, conducted last week by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-TV, showed Bush leading Kerry, 45 to 44 percent. The situation could be further complicated by the prospect of post-election challenges, should a close vote take place.

Two other CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls out this week show Bush solidifying his leads in Nevada and West Virginia, which have a combined 10 electoral votes.

For the first time nearly a month, pollsters have returned to Florida, where three hurricanes put a temporary moratorium on politicking.

Two new surveys this week show Bush holding a narrow edge over Kerry in the Sunshine State, including a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that shows Bush with a three-point edge among likely voters.

Bush's lead in that survey was likely diminished by respondents' view of the economy. Only 41 percent of respondents said they thought the economy was "good or excellent," compared with 51 percent who felt that way in July.

A separate Florida poll conducted September 18 to 21 by Quinnipiac University showed Bush ahead of Kerry, 49 to 41 percent, among registered voters.

But the most movement has taken place this week in New Hampshire and Iowa, two states where voters got to know Kerry early during the race for the Democratic nomination.

Several new polls show Bush posting sizable gains in both states -- especially Iowa, where the president led Kerry by 6 points in a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. A survey conducted in late August showed Kerry with a 6-point lead in the Hawkeye State.

Bush-Cheney strategists say Kerry suffers in part from a cultural disconnect in Midwestern "Gore states" like Iowa and Wisconsin, which also has trended away from the Democrat this month.

That theory drove Republicans to air a new TV ad this week featuring footage of Kerry windsurfing. The ad, which is running in 17 battleground states and on national cable, is designed to make the senator look indecisive and elitist.

"Kerry doesn't share their values and it manifests itself in their vote. They look at this guy who's windsurfing on the Nantucket Sound, and a lot of Iowans are like, 'what?' They don't windsurf in Iowa," one Bush-Cheney strategist said. "They gave Kerry a chance at his convention and they decided, you know, I don't think this is the guy."

Kerry, who is suffering from a cold this week, didn't help his Iowa prospects by canceling a trip to Davenport Thursday. He last visited the state on September 9. Signaling the importance of the state, however, running mate John Edwards reworked his schedule to appear in Kerry's place.

Republicans said voters in New Hampshire -- where Bush, Elizabeth Edwards and DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe campaigned earlier this week -- have simply "come home" to the president following a surge in support for Kerry after his convention in nearby Boston.

The Cheney-Bush strategist said, "Those folks are coming back pretty hard. Any sort of slippage we suffered after the [Democratic] convention was among moderate Independents and moderate Republicans, and those folks have come home. Like Iowa, it will remain competitive, but it's a state we feel good about."

Kerry hasn't campaigned in New Hampshire since August 19.

Kerry campaign aides say they're encouraged by national polling that shows the race continues to tighten.

"Every recent national poll ... is showing that the race is moving back to even nationally, and we are seeing movement in some states towards us," said Kerry's pollster, Mark Mellman.

Other Democrats were less sanguine. One top Democrat said Bush could win the race by focusing not only high-profile states like Florida and Ohio, but on "Mississippi River states."

"A lot of military battle plans going back to the Civil War say 'whoever controls the Mississippi controls America.' And Bush is marching straight up the Mississippi," the Democratic strategist said. "We've just retreated from Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. They already control Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. Bush is now moving in on Iowa and Wisconsin. And except for Illinois, which isn't in play, there's only one state left: Minnesota, the mouth of the river. And it's dead even there."

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