They're the nine hot spots on nominees' map
by John Farmer/The Star-Ledger
Sunday September 07, 2008, 12:32 PM
file photosPresidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- With less than two months left in the longest presidential campaign in American history, the road to the White House appears to run through fewer than 10 states.

These battlegrounds, many of them in either the Rust Belt or the West, would hold the key to whether Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain becomes the nation's 44th president. And the outcomes there could turn in part on the impact of the campaign's two female superstars: Sen. Hillary Clinton, who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, and Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's surprise Republican running mate.

Some of the states on the list are perennials: Florida and three old Great Lakes industrial giants of the Rust Belt -- Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with their trove of Electoral College votes.

Florida, because of its population explosion in the last decades of the 20th century, has been fought over in at least the last four national elections, while the Rust Belt states have been keys to the presidential outcome for decades.

But the country's population shifts have put other states long considered safely Republican into play this November: Virginia and New Hampshire in the East, and Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in the West.

"It's not a big election map this year," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the independent Rothenberg Report.

Together, the nine up-for-grab states offer 121 electoral votes -- 45 percent of the 270 needed for election. Most other states are considered safely in the column of McCain or Obama.

The shrinkage of the electoral map is not new. It has been occurring since the steady shift of the Solid South into the Republican column beginning in the late 1960s.

Combined with the population explosion in the conservative Western states, that has left Democrats increasingly dependent on California, New England, the big Northeast states of New York and New Jersey, and, especially, the Great Lakes Rust Belt. Whenever Republicans, beginning with Ronald Reagan, have made gains there, they have won the White House.

This year, with Republicans thrown on the defensive by President Bush's unpopularity and the deepening economic slump, Democrats believe their prospects look better than usual in the battleground states. With this in mind, Obama spent parts of Thursday and Friday stumping in Pennsylvania, and McCain campaigned Friday, the day after the GOP convention, in equally critical Michigan.

Rick Robb, a veteran Republican hand who directed Reagan's winning 1980 and 1984 campaigns in Pennsylvania, suspects the Keystone State is a barometer for the national outcome. Whoever wins it, he said, is also likely to run well in neighboring Ohio plus Missouri, Virginia and maybe Michigan and Florida.

Obama, he said, "has the edge" but no lock on Pennsylvania, and its vote is likely to divide sharply along geographical lines. Obama should well in the heavily populated and normally Republican suburbs around Philadelphia, Robb said. Republican women there have been voting Democrat in recent years, largely on social issues and in support of abortion rights.

But Obama is likely to fall short of the usual Democratic vote in the blue-collar, labor strongholds around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and especially in the coal regions of southwest Pennsylvania, Robb said. This is Reagan Democrat country: the socially conservative, gun-loving, mostly small-town America that favored Hillary Clinton over Obama during the primary season.

Obama needs to raise his game to win that vote -- and he needs Clinton's help. Which may not be so easy, according to Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist: "The vote for Hillary was not so much an endorsement of Hillary. It was a rejection of Obama, and that's what he's got to overcome."

The tussle for these blue-collar Democrats could turn into one that pits Clinton, whose emphasis on bread-and-butter issues won over many of those voters in the primary season, against Palin, who has her own small-town background and knows how to handle a gun.

Steady but dramatic demographic change is what has pushed Virginia and the three Western states -- dependably Republican in most presidential years -- into the battleground category.

Explosive growth in the northern Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C., over the last decade has swamped the static Republican vote in much of the rest of the state, producing Democratic winners in the last two races for governor and the most recent Senate race. But to win Virginia, Robb said, Obama probably will need a national tide that also carries places like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The Democratic vote has been expanding across much of the West, too, largely the product of explosive growth in the Hispanic population. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada now have Democratic governors, and Colorado has a freshman U.S. senator of Hispanic background, which Democrats see as a hopeful harbinger for Obama. But it's no sure thing there, either.

McCain, from Arizona, and Palin, from Alaska, were billed at the GOP convention as the "Western ticket" committed to "Western values" -- anti-tax, pro-gun, and suspicious of Washington. It's a formula that has worked in the West seemingly forever. But there's a real question of whether it will continue to work in a changing region where even Montana now has a Democrat in the Senate and the governor's office.

The cliche about the race, as it begins in earnest, is, "It's Obama's to win or lose." CNN's poll of polls Friday gave the senator from Illinois a tenuous 47-to-43 percent lead. "People want to vote for him," Rothenberg said, "but they're still not comfortable with him. He might have trouble clinging to the lead."

Bumps in the road still unseen could decide the race. Palin, for example, "is a high-wire act," Ross Baker said. She'll have to hold her own in the vice presidential debate with Sen. Joe Biden and neutralize Democratic claims that she's a risky running mate for a 72-year-old cancer survivor. The GOP pair, he believes, must win over some of the still undecided Democrats -- especially with Democratic voter registration having risen this year while GOP rolls declined.

If they're to win, Baker said, "clearly, Republicans need to snatch some of the Demo vote."