Smaller states emerge as key US battleground

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The Independent US

The candidate for the United States presidency meet tonight in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the second of their three televised debates. Last week, their running mates squared off in rural Kentucky. In other years, even stopping over in either of these smaller states might have been seen as a expensive luxury in terms of campaign time. This year, both candidates have reason to be grateful for the chance.

The candidate for the United States presidency meet tonight in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the second of their three televised debates. Last week, their running mates squared off in rural Kentucky. In other years, even stopping over in either of these smaller states might have been seen as a expensive luxury in terms of campaign time. This year, both candidates have reason to be grateful for the chance.

For months until Labor Day at the start of September, all eyes were on the big states that almost by themselves can determine who wins the White House. The assumption was - and still is - that Vice-President Al Gore would carry California and New York for the Democrats, giving him 87 of the 270 electoral college votes he needs to win. George W Bush would carry his home state of Texas (32 votes) and a slew of southern states, making the two candidates about even.

This left the real battles to be fought in the mid-sized states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Michigan. Mr Gore appears relatively safe in Pennsylvania, which was at one time regarded as marginal, but the rest - including Florida, which Governor Jeb Bush was supposed to deliver with ease for his brother - are too close to call.

So the spotlight now falls, unusually, on some smaller states that rarely warrant a visit from a presidential candidate in the last weeks of a campaign, let alone the attentions of national pollsters. Their new significance stems from the candidates' need to win votes where they can to protect themselves against unpleasant surprises elsewhere.

The Bush team, for instance, has reportedly been working out where it can garner electoral college votes to replace the 25 it stands to lose if Florida falls to Mr Gore. And Mr Gore, while spending muchtime in Florida, has sent his running mate on whistle-stop tours of the North-west and Mid-west.

Among states now in the frame are three of the four hosting presidential debates - Kentucky, North Carolina and Missouri - plus Mr Gore's home state of Tennessee, President Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas, and six others - the states of Iowa and Wisconsin in the Mid-west; Washington and Oregon in the North-west; New Mexico in the South-west and New Hampshire in the North-east.

Of these, only North Carolina, with 14, has more than 11 electoral college votes. Together, though, these states account for 96 votes, and there are more to be picked up in other, even smaller states. And, while the gap between the candidates in some is as wide as 7 points, in most states it is within the three or four-point margin of error.

"Usually we become irrelevant after the primary," said Steve Duprey, chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire. "But there's more than one scenario where a collection of these smaller states added together makes the difference for either side."

The closeness of the race is also bringing new issues into play, not all welcome to the candidates. In New Hampshirethere is the divisive matter of raising local taxes in rich districts to pay for better schools in poor districts. In other states it is the question of school vouchers - whether public money can be used to subsidise private school fees for some poor, often ethnic minority, children. Mr Gore, and Democratic Party policy, oppose this, but some black and Hispanic groups back vouchers and could forsake the Democrats.

In the North-west and New Mexico the environment is a concern, drawing voters to Ralph Nader and the Green Party: a big vote for Mr Nader could erode Mr Gore's vote. In Washington state there is also the pending anti-monopoly case against Microsoft.

In the Mid-west, opposition to stricter gun controls and higher fuel costs, and the demand for more farm subsidies, are concerns. In North Carolina and Kentucky it is the plight of tobacco farmers, threatened by the crusade against "big tobacco" and juvenile smoking.

This lands the candidates in a dilemma. Guns, tobacco and school funding are highly contentious and stand to lose them as many votes from one constituency as they would gain from another. But by sticking to safer subjects they fail to address what is important in these marginal states - and risk losing people's votes anyway.

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