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banner Thursday, 28 September, 2000, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
Key states to watch
George W Bush and his wife Laura on Larry King
Talk shows have boosted George W Bush's ratings
By Washington Correspondent Nick Bryant

National opinion polls are volatile and as a result press coverage of this election lurches from one side to the other.

Just last week, many commentators were describing Al Gore as a virtual shoo-in for the presidency, his post-convention bounce propelling him all the way to the White House.

This week, George W Bush seems to be on top.

Confident performances on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Live with Regis, where Mr Bush described his love of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, have galvanised his supporters.

One of the most closely watched national tracking polls shows him with a narrow edge, leading the vice-president by 47% to 46%.

Mr Bush kisses host Oprah Winfrey
Mr Bush's Oprah appearance helped him woo women

The Electoral College

But the key thing to look at as Campaign 2000 reaches its climax is the state-by-state picture.

US elections are decided not by which candidate secures a nationwide majority, but rather they are determined by the Electoral College on the basis of the results from each of America's 50 different states.

If you come out on top in California, the country's most populous state, then you take all of its it 54 electoral college votes; if you win South Dakota, the 45th ranking state, you take just three.

To win a presidential election, the winning candidate needs 270 Electoral College votes.

As Presidents Rutherford B Hayes and Benjamin Harrison showed in 1876 and 1888, you need not win the popular vote.

Democratic strongholds

Looking at the 2000 race on a state by state basis, Al Gore looks like winning both California (54 votes) and New York (33), the states which hold the most electoral college votes.

Like all Democratic candidates, he is certain to do well in New England.
Al Gore appears with a Pennsylvania sports team
Al Gore was in Pennsylvania courting voters in a key state

Mr Gore has big leads in Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Maine (4) and Vermont (3). Connecticut with eight votes is the home state of his running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman, the first Jewish politician ever to be selected for a major party ticket.

Maryland (10) and Delaware (3) seem pretty safe bets for the vice-president, as does his home state, Tennessee (11).

He has also opened up a big lead in Washington State (11), in the American Northwest.

Republican country

George W Bush is sure to win on his home turf, Texas (32), and perform strongly in the South: states like North Carolina (14), South Carolina (8), Mississippi (7), Alabama (9), Louisiana (9) and Oklahoma (8).

Then, he's almost sure to win Arizona (8), Kansas (6), Colorado (8), Wyoming (3), Montana (3), Idaho (4) Utah (5) and Nevada (4). Added up together, they cancel out California and New York.

Midwest battleground

This election will be determined, then, in the states where the race is much tighter.

As ever, the Midwest will be crucial, the collection of central states which stretch from Wisconsin, on the border with Canada, through Illinois and east to Ohio and Michigan.

Mid Atlantic states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey will also be key to who will be in the White House next year.

All are so-called bell-weather states, ones that are genuinely competitive and tend to swing between the Republicans and Democrats.

Here, George W Bush enjoys what may prove a key, organisational advantage, because many of the states, which he desperately needs to win, have Republican governors.

Missouri is the classic barometer of American public opinion. It has picked the winning candidate in every election since 1960

Pennsylvania is led by the popular Tom Ridge, Michigan by John Engler, Wisconsin by Tommy Thompson, Illinois by George Ryan, Ohio by Bob Taft, and New Jersey by Christine Todd Whitman.

All control powerful political organisations, which could be crucial to mobilising the Republican vote.

Even so, Mr Gore has opened up big leads in Pennsylvania (23), the Electoral College's fifth biggest prize.

A high turnout in the traditional Democrat strongholds of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could secure this state for him.

Illinois (22) also looks to be leaning Democrat.

A recent poll showed Mr Gore with a 15-point lead, prompting Mr Bush to pull his television advertisements from the airwaves - saving millions of dollars that will be spent in other states where the race is closer.

The vice-president is also looking good in New Jersey (15), which President Clinton won in both the 1992 and 1996 elections. The past poll showed Mr Gore with a 12-point lead.

Mr Bush appears in Florida
Florida will be a key state in the election

Michigan (18), the centre of the American car industry, with a strong union vote, also seems to be leaning towards the Democrats.

Again, Mr Gore can boast a double digit lead in the polls, and a powerful endorsement from the influential United Automobile Workers, which had flirted with the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, earlier in the year.

President Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996.

Ohio (21) and Missouri (11) are much closer contests. In Ohio, the Republicans control the governorship, both seats in the Senate and hold majorities in the state legislature.

But that is no guarantee that Mr Bush will come out on top. Never has a Republican won the White House without winning Ohio.

Missouri is the classic barometer of American public opinion. It has picked the winning candidate in every election since 1960, and there the race is on a knife-edge.

States to watch

So the race easily could boil down to Florida (25).

In the summer, Mr Bush was riding high, with a 13-point lead in the polls.

Moreover, his younger brother Jeb Bush, Florida's state governor, was promising to put his state in the Republican column.

But the selection of Joe Lieberman as Gore's running mate appeals to Florida's Jewish voters, and his emphasis on cheaper prescription drugs has won support from the elderly.

Now the polls show a statistical dead heat. Without winning Florida, it is hard to see how Mr Bush could win the election.

Even states like Arkansas (6), Oregon (7), New Mexico (5) and New Hampshire (4) could have a decisive impact on the race. In each one, the polls are close.

With six weeks to go the dilemma facing both candidates is to decide which of the marginal states they should spend their time and money in.

This election promises to be the closest in years and every Electoral College vote will count.

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See also:

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