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Inside Politics

CNN survey: Bush maintains Electoral College lead

Kerry appears to close gap in some key states

From John Mercurio and Molly Levinson
CNN Political Unit

John Kerry is closing the gap on President Bush's lead in several key states.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- President Bush headed into his second debate with John Kerry Friday night holding a sizable lead in the all-important race for electoral votes, but Kerry has made big gains this week in seven battleground states, a new CNN survey suggests.

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

Bush's margin appears unchanged from last week. Boosted by his performance in the Miami, Florida, debate and new questions about Bush's rationale for invading Iraq, however, Kerry looks as if he is threatening the president's lead in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Iowa, which hold a total of 82 electoral votes. If Kerry picks up Ohio and Florida, he would lead Bush in the Electoral College, 285 to 253.

New polls suggest Kerry has also opened up solid leads in two Democratic-leaning states where Bush had been threatening the senator's edge: Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

A senior Kerry strategist, Doug Sosnik, said the senator is even better positioned. Sosnik said their internal polls show Kerry has moved into a "clear lead" in both New Hampshire and Florida.

"We've gotten numbers back since the debate that show us ahead [in Florida]," he said, adding that Kerry "would win New Hampshire today."

Sosnik said Kerry generally had been running 2 to 3 points ahead in battleground states of where he is nationally. "The trends have been positive since the first debate, and we are well positioned for the second debate," Sosnik said.

Republicans strongly dispute such claims.

"Kerry's image has improved everywhere, that's true, but that hasn't necessarily had an impact on the horse race," one senior Bush-Cheney strategist said. "We're pretty much where we were a few weeks ago in all these states."

Both campaigns cautioned, however, that the dynamics of the race could change again, after Friday night's debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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 and party spending on advertising in the states.

Based on this analysis, CNN allocates states to each candidate to indicate what the breakdown of the Electoral College vote would be if the election were held that day. The map is not a prediction of the November 2 outcome.

This week's map, while unchanged in the overall electoral landscape, reflects national polls that show how profoundly the first presidential debate in Miami has affected the race. Bush, who led Kerry by an average of 5 percentage points in CNN's poll of national polls conducted before the Miami debate September 30, appeared to lead by a statistically insignificant 2 points.

"John Kerry went into the first debate as the candidate who clearly had something to prove," said a senior Kerry adviser. "But we go into the second debate with a very different dynamic. Bush cannot afford another serious debate loss."

This week, Colorado offers Kerry perhaps his most surprising opportunity.

"Colorado has tightened, I'll give you that one," a top Bush-Cheney strategist said, citing the strong candidacy of the state's Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar.

And while one Republican called Ohio the president's most "reliably stable" state, campaign watchers in the Buckeye State say Kerry has gained ground there in the past week.

"Things are tightening up a lot here. Wherever the race is, it's within the margin of error," said Howard Wilkinson, a veteran political reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer. "This is now a much tighter race now."

Wilkinson cited two main reasons for the apparent shift toward Kerry in the Buckeye State. First, he said, voters are responding to the president's underwhelming performance in the Miami debate. Also, he said, voters have received another round of bad news on the economy, particularly in the state's southern reaches.

"Things aren't getting better, and it's starting to make a solid, lasting impression on people. There's a lot of economic pessimism around here," he said. "Forecasts for this end of the state are showing little to no growth in 2005."

Also, he said, Bush continues to draw no bounce from Ohio's unpopular governor, Republican Bob Taft. "Taft is pretty hard to find [on the campaign trail]," he said. "They haven't made a point of pushing him out on the stage."

CNN's Shirley Zilberstein contributed to this report.

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