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The Big 5: Picking the States That Will Pick the President

It’s far too soon to know whether the presidential contest will blow open into a laugher or remain competitive from now until Election Day. But if the race stays close until the end, a mere four or five states are likely to tell you whom the next occupant of the Oval Office will be.

Right now, those states look to be Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Michigan.

Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that these will be the five closest states. But together these five states will tell a great deal about whether Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has added to the Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Al Gore states, thereby giving him at least 270 electoral votes, or whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has either held the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush Electoral College coalition together or been able to offset one or two losses with a previously Democratic state of his own.

Colorado and Virginia make the list because they are the two states mostly likely to switch to Obama that went for Bush in both 2000 and 2004.

Early polls show Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, ahead in Colorado and running essentially even with McCain, who will be the GOP standard bearer, in the Old Dominion. Of the two, Colorado would seem to be the more likely Democratic opportunity, and it is not easy to imagine Obama winning Virginia while losing Colorado.

Obama’s potential in both states is in the suburbs, with upscale, white voters who are drawn to the Democratic nominee’s message of change. Both states have seen Democratic gains recently — Democrats won the two states’ last Senate races and made gains in each state’s Legislature in 2006.

If Obama fails to carry either state, his arithmetic gets dicey. Even more important, a pair of McCain victories would suggest that the Republican made substantial gains between June and November — a bad sign for Obama nationally.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ohio is on the short list of key states. Kerry lost the state by 118,601 votes last time, and if he had carried the Buckeye State, he would now be running for re-election.

Republicans have had serious problems in Ohio over the past few years, losing all of the state’s top offices, a Senate seat and a Congressional district. The state’s economic problems have also made it ripe for Obama’s taking in 2008. Indeed, if McCain keeps the state in the GOP column, it would be a sign of the limits of Obama’s appeal — especially with “Reagan Democrats” but more generally with swing voters.

Nevada has proved to be one of the more competitive states over the past few White House contests, so it automatically becomes a bellwether of the 2008 presidential election. Yes, there are plenty of conservatives and Republicans in the state, but Nevada also has its share of Hispanics, labor union members and moderate Democrats.

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