McCain and Obama try to redraw the political map
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A White House race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama could shake up the political map in November, putting new states in play and shifting the odds in some traditional battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio.
Both McCain and Obama believe they can win at least a few states recently dominated by the opposing party, chipping away at the now-familiar pattern where Republicans won states in the South and the heartland, Democrats took the coastal states and upper Midwest -- and a few crucial swing states decided the winner.
"We're looking at a much larger and more unpredictable playing field than we saw in the last few election cycles," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant and a former aide to McCain during his 2000 presidential bid.
"Obama's people correctly see historically Republican states where they think they can be competitive," Schnur said. "But it's pretty clear Obama also loses ground to McCain in some states that have been safe for Democrats in the past."
Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, has nearly clinched victory in his Democratic nominating race against Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
He already has turned his focus to the general election with trips in recent weeks to battlegrounds such as Michigan, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico and Colorado. McCain, an Arizona senator who has clinched the Republican nomination, has been focusing on the general election for two months.
Strategists for both candidates are scanning opinion polls, voter registration lists and demographic reports to find states they can win in their quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House. Those votes are awarded to the popular-vote winner in each state.
Most of the focus will be in the big battleground states that have proven crucial in recent presidential elections, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, won by Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and Florida and Ohio, won last time by Republican President George W. Bush.
Both campaigns also will target 11 states decided by 6 percentage points or less in the close 2004 presidential election narrowly won by Bush.
Kerry won six of those battles -- Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Bush took five -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.
Obama hopes a surge in Democratic voter registration, along with record turnout among young and black voters, can help propel his message of change and break down partisan boundaries that have hemmed in the party's recent nominees.
Democrats see major opportunities in the West, where they have made strides as the Hispanic population grows -- even though Obama has struggled to win over Hispanics.
The prime targets in the West include New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, all narrowly won by Bush. But those three states combined have only 19 electoral votes -- less than Ohio, Florida or Pennsylvania individually.
Obama also hopes record turnout among blacks will help make a few Southern states competitive, particularly Virginia, which has shifted toward Democrats in recent elections as the growing northern suburbs outside Washington account for one-third of state voters.
"Colorado is definitely in play and we are doing very well in Nevada and New Mexico," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "We think it opens a number of states and it will force McCain to play on a very, very wide playing field, and play a lot more defense than we will be."
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, hopes his ability to appeal to independents and Obama's difficulties with white working-class voters make for a winning combination in crucial blue-collar battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Obama's struggles with Hispanics and Jewish voters also are a bad combination in Florida, where McCain already has made several stops. McCain is airing a television ad focused on the economy in Michigan and Pennsylvania. It earlier appeared in Iowa.
"The question for Obama is whether he can stack up enough Virginias and Colorados to offset states like Ohio and Pennsylvania," Schnur said.
Opinion polls show a tight race nationally and in most key states. The sharp partisan divide of the last two elections -- noted by the red and blue colors used to differentiate states on television maps -- is still alive and well.
"Ultimately at the end of the day there will be a couple of states in play on each side that weren't in play before, but the red and blue divide is still pretty stark," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
(Editing by David Wiessler)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)