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CNN survey: Kerry picks up Ohio, New Hampshire

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Wow, it is quite the horserace...unfortunately we only seem to have the aft end of both horses running...

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After strong performances in three televised debates, Sen. John Kerry has overtaken President Bush in the jackpot swing states of Ohio and New Hampshire, according to a new CNN survey that nonetheless shows Bush clinging to a small lead in the Electoral College.

If the election were held today, Bush would win 277 electoral votes to Kerry's 261, according to a new CNN survey based on state polling, interviews with campaign aides and independent analysts. A candidate wins the election with 270 electoral votes, regardless of the popular vote.

Eighteen days before Election Day, the race remains extremely tight. If Kerry overtakes Bush in a state as small as Iowa, for example, the Electoral College would be tied at 269 votes each, a scenario that would throw the election into the House of Representatives. If he picks up Florida, Kerry would surge into the lead.

For now, at least, the trend appears to be moving Kerry's way.

Bush, who held a commanding edge coming out of his convention last month, is now clinging to statistically insignificant leads in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and Florida, which hold a total of 53 electoral votes. (Even if he doesn't carry Colorado, Kerry's current electoral tally could gain four of that state's nine electoral votes. Voters there are considering a ballot initiative that would distribute their electoral votes based on the popular vote.)

Kerry, who has struggled for weeks in some of his party's traditional strongholds, now appears to have solidified his standing. New polling shows the only so-called "blue" states where Kerry's lead is less than five points are Michigan and Pennsylvania, which hold a total of 38 electoral votes.

One key state that is trending Bush's way, however, is Missouri, which Kerry aides acknowledge is no longer a top target. "Well, let me put it this way," one senior Democratic strategist said this week. "We've taken it out of our list" of battleground states.

Democrats largely attribute Kerry's gains in Ohio and New Hampshire to his performance in the series of debates that concluded Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona, and party strategists insist the trend will continue to help Kerry overtake Bush nationally. Post-debate polls show viewers believe Kerry won all three face-offs.

"Kerry had an opportunity in the debates to show the American people his strength and conviction and to lay out his plans, and people have responded very positively to that," said Mark Mellman, the Kerry campaign's chief pollster. "So we see trends nationally moving in our direction and trends in battleground states moving towards us as well."

Republicans strongly dispute that they're falling behind in Ohio, a state no Republican has ever lost and gone on to win the White House.

"You have to trust the general trend, which has us doing better in Ohio," said Matt Dowd, a top Bush-Cheney strategist. "They just pulled out of West Virginia with their advertising, and they've now stopped their trips. If they were winning in Ohio, then they wouldn't be pulling out of West Virginia. It's an area of the country that's very similar."

Two polls conducted in the past week, by the Chicago Tribute and the American Research Group, show Kerry holds narrow leads in Ohio. The Tribune survey shows Kerry leading Bush, 49 to 45 percent. The ARG poll shows Kerry leading by a statistically insignificant one percentage point. Kerry trailed Bush by double digits in mid-September.

Kerry's gains in Ohio and New Hampshire -- both traditionally Republican states that Al Gore narrowly lost in 2000 -- mark the first time the senator has taken a state out of Bush's column since CNN's political unit started conducting a weekly survey of the electoral map in late July. Gore lost Ohio after pulling out of the state five weeks before Election Day.

While he called the Ohio race a "flat-footed tie," Howard Wilkinson, a veteran political reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer, said signs indicate momentum for Kerry. "I'm almost ready to go blue," Wilkinson said, citing Democratic advantages in new voter registration efforts and widespread organization among African-American voters in cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Kerry aides also believe that a new TV ad running in the state will help them solidify their footing in Ohio. The 30-second ad, which started running Wednesday throughout the Buckeye State, cites Treasury Secretary John Snow's recent claim, as quoted in a local newspaper, that Bush's poor jobs record is a "myth."

"Snow just lost Ohio for them," one Kerry aide said this week. Snow has said he was misquoted.

Democrats also claim that Bush "fumbled" a question on jobs in the Tempe debate, which they say hurt him in a state like Ohio where unemployment has been a major issue. The latest jobless report, issued last Friday, showed meager gains, offering little hope to Republicans in Ohio.

Kerry begins a bus-tour of rural communities in southern Ohio this weekend, which Wilkinson said shows that Democrats are trying not to repeat the mistakes made by Gore in 2000.

"Al Gore should have been there four years ago. He would have won the state," he said. "These guys have learned a lesson from that."

Bush currently leads in 31 states, including the entire southern rim of the country, except California, and the mountain and plains regions. Kerry leads in the District of Columbia and the remaining 19 states, including New England and the entire West Coast.

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 careful and extensive analysis, CNN allocates states to each candidate to determine the breakdown of the Electoral College vote if the election were held today. The map is not a prediction of the Election Day outcome.

Despite slight movement toward Kerry, the national race remains virtually unchanged, according to polling conducted mostly before the final debate Wednesday.

Bush, who led Kerry by an average of 3 points in CNN's poll of national polls conducted before the candidates' October 8 debate in St. Louis, now leads by just 2 points.


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