The sharp red and blue boundaries that have defined political America for a decade could be blurring.
As Barack Obama moves toward claiming the Democratic presidential nomination, he and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain are devising strategies that challenge long-held assumptions about what states each party targets to reach 270 Electoral College votes, the number needed to win the White House.
Their travel schedules — both were in New Mexico on Monday and Florida last week — are focused on the fall, even as Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary campaign continues. Obama needs fewer than 50 additional delegates to reach 2,026 and clinch the Democratic nomination.
Analysts on both sides have begun calculating the state-by-state matchups between him and McCain.
In some ways, they are a matched pair, each with vulnerabilities in their parties' bases and strength among independents and crossover voters. That makes November a battle between idiosyncratic followers dubbed Obamicans and McCainiacs as well as between traditional Republicans and Democrats.
Among the factors reshaping the battlegrounds: a prospective flood of young voters in the West, growing numbers of Hispanic voters in the Southwest and the serendipity of popular candidates running for the Senate or governorship in Virginia, Oregon and elsewhere. McCain's maverick appeal helps him in New Hampshire and other states with many unaffiliated voters. Obama's likely status as the first African-American nominated for national office boosts him in Southern states with large black populations but creates hurdles in West Virginia and other places where working-class whites are a big part of the electorate.
The new must-have state could be Colorado, a state that's voted Republican in the last three presidential elections but has been moving toward the Democrats. That's one reason the Democratic National Committee chose Denver as the site for its national convention in August.
"Tell me (who wins) Colorado and I will tell you the winner," says Bernadette Budde, a political analyst at BIPAC, a business-oriented political action committee. "The political geography has shifted."
That's for sure. From the 2000 contest to the one in 2004, the Electoral College map was more constant than it had been in any back-to-back presidential races in U.S. history, says political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University. Just three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico — backed one party's candidate in one election and the other party's nominee four years later.
"We're not going to see that degree of stability" this time, Abramowitz predicts.
Some swing states will be familiar. "It's very difficult to calculate a Democratic victory without Ohio or Florida or both," Clinton strategist Geoffrey Garin says. A narrow victory in Ohio, the hardest-fought battleground in 2004, gave Bush a second term.
The battle for the Buckeye State will be different this time, though. McCain doesn't have the enthusiastic backing of evangelical Christians who helped Bush win there in 2004, when their turnout was boosted by a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. For his part, Obama struggled to connect with working-class whites in the March primary, which Clinton carried.
At the moment, there are more states in play this year, including some in each candidate's backyard. Democrats are targeting the Mountain West states around McCain's Arizona, all of which went for Bush last time. Republicans see openings in Michigan and Wisconsin, near Obama's home state of Illinois, even though both states have gone Democratic in last four elections.
New Hampshire, which swung to the Democrats in 2004, is friendly territory for McCain. Victories in its first-in-the-nation primary twice propelled his presidential bids, while Obama lost to Clinton there in January.
On the other hand, Indiana, a Republican stronghold since 1964, could be promising for Obama. He and Clinton combined received more votes in its primary this month than Bush did in 2000 in the general election, when turnout usually is higher.
Plan for a squeaker
Rule One for campaign strategists: Hope for a landslide but plan for a squeaker.
The current political landscape is tilted in Democrats' favor by Bush's dismal approval ratings, voter opposition to the Iraq war and angst over rising gas prices and home foreclosures. In special elections over the past three months, Democrats have picked up House seats in solidly Republican districts in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi.
"They are canaries in the coal mine" and a warning to the GOP, says Rep. Tom Davis, a former chairman of the Republican congressional campaign committee. His home state of Virginia is one of the traditionally Republican states being targeted by Obama.
A map that shows how the 50 states have voted in the last four presidential elections gives more encouragement to Democrats. Counting only states that have been consistently in one camp, Democrats start with 248 electoral votes, Republicans with 135.
Even so, McCain continues to run neck and neck with the Democrats in national surveys. The Gallup daily tracking poll shows McCain leading Obama 47%-45%. Clinton tops McCain 49%-44%.
Obama's biracial heritage also introduces an unprecedented and unpredictable factor. His candidacy has sparked a surge in primary turnout among black voters in Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana and elsewhere, giving Democrats potential openings in the South.
On the other hand, he also has encountered resistance from some white voters, as illustrated in this month's primary in West Virginia. According to surveys at polling places, one in five white voters said the race of the candidate was a factor in their choice, and only one-third of them said they would back Obama over McCain in November.
In the primaries, Obama mobilized waves of new voters, including many young ones. However, besides his struggle to energize working-class whites in heartland states, the Illinois senator hasn't shown much pull among Hispanics, the USA's fastest-growing ethnic group.
Clinton, who says she'll campaign at least through the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota next Tuesday, argues she'd be stronger in states Democrats need to carry. On the night of her West Virginia victory, she declared: "It is a fact that no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia."
'The nation is evolving'
West Virginia, which backed Bush in the last two elections, isn't a key state for Obama, however.
On the new map:
• The Mountain West is key.
Arizona, which McCain has represented in the Senate for four terms, presumably is safely in his corner. But New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado are Bush states from 2004 that are among the Democrats' top targets this time.
"This nation is evolving," says former Colorado governor Roy Romer, a former Democratic national chairman. "We need to get out of these straitjackets that 'that's a red state' or 'that's a blue state.' " In the last two elections, Democrats have won the governorship, a Senate seat and control of the state Legislature in Colorado, bolstered by environmental issues and the growing ranks of Hispanic voters.
Michael DuHaime, former campaign manager for Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid who is advising the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign, says McCain's Southwestern roots will help him hold the region, however.
The Arizona senator, who helped lead efforts to set a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, also hopes to appeal to Latinos despite resentment of the GOP opposition that derailed those efforts. His campaign released a web ad Monday aimed at Hispanic veterans.
•The Rust Belt is competitive.
Obama seems secure in his home state of Illinois, but some Democratic strategists worry about other big industrialized states in the upper Midwest on which Democrats rely. Mark Mellman, the pollster for Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004, surveys the states the Massachusetts senator carried. Among those, Mellman asks, "What are the states the Democrats could lose?"
He names Wisconsin and Michigan as well as New Hampshire.
A dispute over Michigan's primary, held earlier than party rules allowed, meant Obama didn't campaign there and missed the chance to identify supporters and build an organization that could be useful in the fall. Two weeks ago, he finally stumped in the state.
• The South may not be solid.
Democrats haven't carried a Southern state since Arkansas' Bill Clinton topped the ticket. This time, the Obama campaign says it will target Virginia, North Carolina and perhaps other states in the region. Obama's ability to energize black voters and appeal to college-educated whites has made both states more feasible for him than they probably would be for Clinton.
"It'll be a tough race in North Carolina, but I think we have a real shot at it," says former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who sought the presidential nomination this year and has endorsed Obama.
Obama would "attract a group of voters who have not been voting … and I think the enthusiasm in the African-American community has been and will continue to be extraordinary," Edwards says.
Democrats haven't carried the state for three decades, however, and didn't win it in 2004, when Edwards was on the ticket with Kerry.
•And the Pacific Northwest?
McCain chose a wind-power company in Portland, Ore., this month as the site to deliver an address that included a call for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, a split with Bush.
Democrats are skeptical the Arizona senator could compete in traditionally Democratic Oregon and Washington state, where anti-war sentiment is particularly strong. "In the end, the Pacific Northwest is going to be off-limits to McCain," says Stacie Paxton of the Democratic National Committee.
Even so, DuHaime calls McCain "a different kind of Republican," similar to those who have fared well in elections in the region. McCain could be boosted by Republican Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who is running for re-election, and Washington state gubernatorial contender Dino Rossi, a Republican who nearly won the governor's race in 2004.
When it's time to ante up
Targeting states, like playing poker, sometimes involves bluffing.
Putting a state in play — by spending money on TV ads, for instance, and sending in the candidate — can force the opposition to devote money and time defending home turf. That diverts resources from elsewhere.
So usually Democratic New Jersey could be a GOP target — or even California, where McCain is scheduled to campaign Thursday. Its 55 electoral votes, which Democrats have carried since 1992, are nearly one-fifth of the total needed to win the presidency.
Despite Republican skepticism, Democrats suggest they might contest GOP strongholds Mississippi, Georgia, North Dakota and Nebraska. "We're going to force McCain to play on a very, very wide playing field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says. Obama's expected money advantage over McCain could aid that effort.
Some of the customary bets are off because of demographic trends, the national mood and the particular strengths and weaknesses of the candidates likely to face off in November. "In a nutshell, the (electoral) map blew up and is lying in pieces on the floor," Budde says, "just waiting to be reconstructed."