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35 days until Election Day 2 days until the first presidential debate 7 days until the vice presidential debate 10 days until the second presidential debate 15 days until the third presidential debate

NEWS SUMMARY

The front page of the New York Times heralds pre-war intelligence warnings about the problems in Iraq; the front page of the Washington Post trumpets the rising costs and declining availability of health care; higher oil prices also represent a juicy thematic target for John Kerry and his allies.

And yet our focus today is on more prosaic matters.

Namely:

What are the Electoral College implications of proud pappy John Norris returning to Iowa?

Of Teresa Vilmain, uber-strategist, returning to Wisconsin?

Of the Kerry campaign sending several dozen staffers and regional press secretaries to Wisconsin and New Mexico and Iowa?

Lots.

All that matters now is 270.

For all John Kerry's problems in attributes; for all of George W. Bush's strengths on national security issues; for all the carping about the Kerry campaign's competence; for all the national horse race polls; for all the implications of Karl Rove's secret plan to engage in psy-ops with possible last-minute visits to New Jersey and Connecticut — for all that, getting to 270 electoral votes is — before, now, and forever — where the rubber meets the road.

If we've said it once, by golly, we've said it a zillion times: the general election today is truly 13 or so separate elections in very different states with very different problems and opportunities for both campaigns. (Yes, a boost in the national horse race for Kerry — most likely from the debates — could change this calculus, but that's a discussion for another day — like maybe Friday.)

Every strategic decision the Kerry campaign makes today is based on the unforgiving mathematics of the Electoral College.

And make no mistake — the Senator's margin of error is at this point pretty small. There aren't that many plausible combinations of states that get him to the electoral Promised Land — which means that almost any state he CAN win, at this point, he MUST win.

In some ways, Tad Devine's state targeting job is easier now (with fewer states in play, there are fewer macro choices to make), and Michael Whouley's, Karen Hicks', and Steve Rosenthal's has become even more important. (We'd add Doug Sosnik to that list, but no one has a clue what this Wizard of Electoral Oz is doing at the DNC.)

The questions they'll poll on and will respond to include: Where geographically in the targeted states is Kerry underperforming? With what groups? What are his vote goals? Where, in a state, should he visit? What should he do in the state when he does visit? What surrogates, Robocalls, and pieces of direct mail might tip the balance?

Having the right person on the ground answer those questions can literally be what distinguishes a winning campaign from a losing one.

There are those who theorize that the ground game (the campaign, the national and state parties, the unions, and the interest groups) could be worth more than 2 percent to the Democrats in a given state — although Karl Rove has spent several years trying to make sure that that doesn't happen.

So that's why Norris and Vilmain matter — and why their being dispatched from Washington marks a new phase in the campaign.

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