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Inside Politics

CNN survey: Bush maintains Electoral College lead

From John Mercurio and Molly Levinson
CNN Political Unit

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CORAL GABLES, Florida (CNN) -- George Bush continued to threaten John Kerry's grasp on several reliably Democratic states this week and solidified his lead in others, according to CNN's weekly Electoral College analysis conducted before Thursday night's first presidential debate.

Still, the analysis indicated Bush's lead in the all-important Electoral College was unchanged from last week.

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.

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

The CNN survey reflects national trends, which show Bush's average lead over Kerry virtually unchanged from last week. Bush has an average 5 percentage point lead in nationwide polls, according to a CNN review of public polling. Ten polls released over the past week, including the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey, show between a 3- and 8-point lead for the president, who has remained slightly ahead of Kerry since the GOP convention ended in early September.

The 4- to 5-point average spread has held constant over the past two weeks. Last week's "poll of polls" showed an average 4-point lead for Bush.

Both campaigns cautioned, however, that the dynamics of the horse race could change dramatically after the debate at the University of Miami, a 90-minute forum focused on foreign policy that begins at 9 p.m. EDT.

The CNN political unit's weekly Electoral College analysis is based on 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 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.

New polls showed tight races in Maine, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- so-called Democratic "blue states." The states have a combined total of 63 electoral votes. Meanwhile, Bush appeared to have slim leads in four states -- Colorado, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Iowa -- which have a combined total of 23 electoral votes.

Bush appeared to be solidifying his leads in states he won narrowly four years ago, including Florida, Nevada and West Virginia.

One possible bright spot for Kerry is in Ohio. The state has been leaning toward Bush throughout September, but a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Kerry leading by 3 points among registered voters. However, Bush holds a 2-point lead among likely voters. (Polls explainer)

Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said the GOP-friendly trend playing out across the country is creating a battlefield that is forcing Kerry to play defense in states Democrat Al Gore carried in 2000.

"There are a number of red states where the Kerry campaign made a significant investment over the summer -- states like Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina, where they've either entirely or mostly pulled their resources. And mostly now you've got a battle over places that were blue states," Mehlman said. "The race is close and will remain close. But you're seeing us moving down the field, and they're in a much more defensive position than they've been in."

Independent pollsters in some states, noting that Gore won several states by close margins, said Mehlman might be overstating the progress Bush has made in blue states.

"Gore only won Minnesota by 2 points, and the last two polls show Kerry leading by a couple points. So essentially you've got the same margin you had four years ago," said Rob Daves, director of the Minnesota Poll for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Kerry's not doing worse here, he's doing exactly the same as Gore."

A senior Kerry-Edwards strategist said their polling, which they declined to release, shows that Bush's post-convention gains have stalled and Democrats are turning the tide.

"The trends are very encouraging for us. Most states moving our way -- and the race is moving our way nationally," the Kerry strategist said. "We think it's a very close race and certainly within the margin of error nationally and we think we're going into this debate thinking we're much closer than some of the public polls show."

Several other states remain extremely close, including New Hampshire, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

CNN's Shirley Zilberstein contributed to this report.

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