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The Big Battleground States

Midwest and parts of South are shaping up as pivotal to fall elections

About this time four years ago, President Bush and his advisers decided not to seriously contest the presidential election in California. No announcement was ever made, "but we knew when we had trouble getting stamps out of national headquarters," says Dan Schnur, a former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson who worked on the Bush campaign.

Now some California Republicans worry that the campaign of Sen. Bob Dole may make the same decision, though aides dismiss such talk. "I can state categorically that's not the case," says Dole adviser Steve Merksamer, a Sacramento-based consultant. "We're definitely a battleground state."

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While it is still early in the campaign, the candidates and their staffs are already making decisions on where to target their finite resources of money and time.

Such choices can make the difference between victory and defeat in November, and can have reverberations for candidates running in other races down the ticket.

In picking battleground states, both campaigns have put together a list that adds up to at least the 270 electoral vote majority they need. They begin with so-called "core states" that have almost always voted with one party, for example in both 1988 and 1992.

The Republican core amounts to 168 electoral votes, while the Democratic core has 107 electoral votes. Some 263 electoral votes are at stake in the swing states.

These kinds of numbers have led Republican strategists to have confidence in their prospects, despite national poll numbers that show Senator Dole lagging behind President Clinton.

Republican strength in the South and the West (minus the coastal states) means that it is quite possible for Mr. Dole to win election without winning California, the largest prize of 54 electoral votes. Mr. Clinton, by contrast, must win California to gain the White House, analysts agree.

But these Republican calculations have been thrown off by the huge lead Clinton is compiling in national polls - as much as 21 points. Based on national and state surveys, even some core Republican states are now competitive for Clinton, most prominently Florida and Arizona, and possibly even Texas.

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Among the 22 swing states, Clinton leads in 17 of them. If Clinton can hold all the states where his margin of victory in 1992 was more than 6.5 percent, then he wins reelection, says the Heritage Foundation's David Winston, who has done analyses for the Republican National Committee and for the electronic publication PoliticsUSA.

Sizing up the Midwest

Both camps agree that the most contested area of the country remains the Midwest, particularly the populous states such as Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, but also extending south into Kentucky and Tennessee. And both sides will probably strongly contest the Northeastern states of New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware, as well as Southern states of Georgia and Louisiana.

The Clinton campaign has been following a clear targeting strategy since early this year, judging from where Democratic Party television ads have been running. A Time magazine map of the party's ad purchases overlays almost precisely with the battleground states, while adding other targets such as North Carolina.

Money will be a key factor in targeting decisions. While each candidate will be limited to about $32 million in spending after the conventions, a full-fledged campaign in California alone can cost $10 million, plus about the same amount of "soft money," party funds spent to get out the vote for candidates at all levels.

"You have a serious asset allocation problem," says California-based GOP consultant Sal Russo.

Targeting TV spots

Regional approaches work in some areas. Television spots that run in Philadelphia, for example, are also seen in southern New Jersey, while ads on New York stations are seen in northern Jersey and Connecticut. But Florida and California are self-contained media markets, making them "an all or nothing proposition - and a big, expensive one," says Mr. Winston.

For that reason, some Republicans here worry that Dole will do little to contest Clinton in California.

"I have a high level of concern that the electoral history of 1992 might repeat itself in 1996," says GOP Assemblyman Jim Brulte, a leading figure in the state legislature, referring to the Bush campaign's lackluster effort in the state.

"If the federal campaign writes California off, it complicates our ability to retain control of the state Assembly, and to hold our congressional seats."

For now, Clinton continues to far outpace Dole in the polls - even in many key battleground states. Recent surveys, for instance, put Dole down as much as 19 points in Ohio, 17 points in Pennsylvania, 14 points in Illinois, and at least 9 points in Michigan.

Republican analysts argue that current poll numbers are not meaningful given the volatility of the electorate. If Dole can raise his national poll numbers by 10 points, cutting Clinton's lead in half, that will change the state targeting calculations, they say.

"It will put the entire West (minus the coast) and the entire South into the Republican column," says Mr. Russo, and make the Midwest and possibly even California and Pennsylvania very competitive.

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