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May 2, 2012 – 10:16 am | Views: 442

(Reuters) – The battle for the White House

is still in its early, often silly stages – a time when issues such as the economy and national security can be overshadowed

by spats over which candidate would be better for dogs.

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks 

during the Building and Construction Trades Department Legislative Conference at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington 

April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

But in the end, the November 6

election between Democratic President Barack Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney will hinge on 10 politically

divided states, nine of which Obama won when he defeated Republican John McCain in 2008.

The states range from former

Republican strongholds such as North Carolina and Virginia to a few key battlegrounds – namely Ohio, Florida and Nevada –

where a sputtering economy gives Romney a chance to break through. Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Arizona and New Hampshire

also are up for grabs.

Obama dramatically expanded the political playing field for Democrats in 2008 by winning states

such as Indiana that had not backed a Democratic presidential contender in a generation.

 

In this year’s

state-by-state race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election, Obama is the early favorite in states that would

give him 227 electoral votes. Romney leads in states that would give him 180.

That gives Obama larger room for error

than Romney as the two wrestle for the 131 electoral votes at stake in the toss-up or “swing” states.

A state’s

electoral votes reflect its number of seats in Congress, most of which are based on population.

Larger states such as

California (which has 55 electoral votes and likely will go for Obama) and Texas (which has 38 and is likely to back Romney)

can be windfalls, but in close elections, narrowly divided states such as Ohio (18 votes) typically determine the outcome.

All of the states except Maine and Nebraska award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who carries the

state.

When Obama rolled up 365 electoral votes and nearly 53 percent of the popular vote to defeat McCain in 2008,

Obama’s personal ratings were strong and he did not have much of a record on spending, deficits and healthcare for foes to

target.

But jobless rates above 8 percent, and public doubts about Obama’s leadership on the economy and his landmark

healthcare overhaul have helped push his approval ratings below 50 percent since then. That has put him at risk in several of

the key states he won in 2008.

“Obama will be playing defense, but he has some ground that he can give up and still

win,” said Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan consulting firm that is conducting monthly opinion polls in swing

states.

“To some extent, he’s running a national triage operation, and he just can’t lose too many patients,” Haynes

said. “He can lose a few states from 2008, but he has to have some firewalls.”

OBAMA’S PATHS TO VICTORY

Both

Obama and Romney head into the campaign with a solid base of states where they can expect easy wins.

Obama is likely

to carry the West Coast and most New England and Northeastern states, while Romney will be heavily favored to sweep most

states in the South and Great Plains.

Obama must defend seven states he won in 2008 by fewer than 10 percentage points

— Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

Romney is an early favorite to

reclaim traditionally Republican Indiana. But to deny Obama a second term, he also needs a combination of victories in the

fiercely contested swing states of Ohio and Florida, historically conservative North Carolina and Virginia and in one or two

other toss-ups.

Polls show close races in all of the key battlegrounds, although Obama has slight leads in Ohio and

Florida, the cornerstones of any Romney victory scenario.

The Obama campaign promises to compete in all of the states

it won in 2008, and hopes to get a boost in the southwestern state of Arizona with the help of the state’s growing Hispanic

population, whose support has been trending toward Democrats.

The candidates’ recent campaign schedules are signaling

which states they see as crucial.

Obama traveled to New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa last week, and will hold his

first formal campaign rallies on Saturday in Ohio and Virginia. Romney, meanwhile recently has been in Ohio, Pennsylvania,

Arizona, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

“We have worked hard to expand the map and have many ways to get to 270

electoral votes,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters in a conference call last week. “We believe there are

even more pathways than there were before, but clearly Virginia and Ohio are two critical states in this

campaign.”

HOW ROMNEY COULD WIN

If Romney can hold all 22 of the states won by McCain in 2008, he could start

his path to the White House by reclaiming Indiana and Virginia – which until Obama came along had not backed a Democrat in a

presidential race since 1964 – and North Carolina, which had been reliably Republican since 1976.

The traditional

battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida, king makers in recent national races, loom again as critical pieces of Romney’s electoral

puzzle. Florida’s hotly disputed results gave Republican George W. Bush the 2000 election, while Democrat John Kerry’s

upset hopes were dashed when Ohio narrowly backed Bush in 2004.

Both states have been hit hard by economic turmoil

under Obama, although Ohio’s unemployment rate has recovered to dip slightly below the national average. Florida is one of

four battlegrounds, along with Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona, with unemployment rates higher than the national average

of 8.2 percent.

Even reclaiming Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio and Florida and their combined 86 electoral

votes from Obama would leave Romney four electoral votes short of 270, forcing him to take at least one other state from the

battleground list.

“It is very difficult to see how Romney can win without taking those five states,” Quinnipiac

pollster Peter Brown said. And even then, “he still needs one more.”

Republican strategist Todd Harris counters that

Obama’s record on the economy and as the overseer of a rising federal debt – now at more than $15 trillion – will complicate

the president’s re-election bid.

“It’s going to be a lot tougher for the president this time than in 2008,” Harris

said. “As hard as the Obama campaign is trying to make this election about Mitt Romney, the fact is this is going to be a

referendum on the president’s record and the idea of whether people want four more years of the same.”

Democrats hope

that Republicans’ harsh rhetoric on immigration – including Romney’s opposition to a bill that would give legal status to

children of illegal immigrants who serve in the military or go to college – will accelerate a recent shift of Hispanics

toward Democrats. Such a shift could particularly boost Democrats in the western states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and

Arizona.

Obama won about two-thirds of Hispanics’ votes in 2008, aiding his victory margins in Colorado, New Mexico

and Nevada.

Hispanics – who account for 16 percent of the U.S. population and grew 43 percent during the last decade –

also could have key roles in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere.

“The tone of the immigration

debate has been very ugly. It’s going to be a challenge for any Republican … to appeal to Hispanic voters,” Democratic

strategist Karen Finney said.

Other factors could help Romney in the West. Nevada has been hit hard by a 12 percent

state unemployment rate and record home foreclosures. It also has a big Mormon population and remains a friendly target for

Romney, who is Mormon.

Republicans also are confident of keeping Arizona, a conservative state with a high foreclosure

rate, a significant Mormon population and a long history of backing Republicans in presidential elections.

“There is

no way Obama is going to do better this time than he did in 2008,” Harris said. “The election will come down to a question of

how much worse he does.”

****To see a graphic of how Obama and Romney stand in the race for electoral votes, go to link.reuters.com/maz87s.

(Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank)

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Analysis: Obama “playing defense”, but has advantage on electoral map

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