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Mapping the Course

The 2000 election taught Democrats a painful lesson: It really is the Electoral College, and not the popular vote, that decides the presidency. As they continue their hard-fought battle for the Democratic nomination, it’s clear that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) haven’t forgotten.

While the general election is still seven months away, Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online magazine, said the attention to getting to 270 electoral votes makes plenty of sense. “We’ve just simply come out of two straight elections that came down to one state, which has focused Democrats much more specifically on battleground states than in the past.”

Clinton’s campaign looks to her victory over Obama in the Ohio primary, and what they think will be her win in Pennsylvania on Apr. 22, as proof that she would be able to carry those big, important states in a general election contest against McCain. They also point to her win in the contested Florida primary as evidence that she is better positioned to carry that battleground state in November.

“The states she’s taken have considerably more electoral votes,” Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, said Thursday. “At the end of the day, she is the most electable against John McCain.”

Clinton’s focus on her chances in the general election — an argument aimed principally at party elites and superdelegates — is also key to her commitment to stay in the primary contest, despite Obama’s lead in the delegate count. Her electoral strategy is in line with the way Democrats have run for the White House in recent years.

“Clinton is a candidate who is going to be very much a repeat of the last two Democratic candidates,” said Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Whistling Past Dixie,” which urges Democrats to build a winning coalition without relying on the South. Of course, for Al Gore and John Kerry, things didn’t work out too well. For Clinton, Schaller said, there would be “no room for error.”

By contrast, Obama’s strategy is based on changing that playing field. He relies on his support from independents and some Republicans — which would allow Democrats to compete in some states that have supported GOP candidates in recent presidential elections, like Colorado and Virginia. As David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, explained, “We’ll obviously compete on the normal battlegrounds. But we’ll also put more states in play.”

For both campaigns, the arguments about electability are designed more for party elites than for rank-and-file voters. And their pitches are based on early general election polling, exit polls after primaries and other early analyses that may not hold up in the fall.

“So much of the speculation now is based on a highly polarized primary season, not a highly polarized general election,” said Kilgore, a veteran Democratic analyst. “There is reason for concern about some of the white working-class voters who don’t like Obama. But I don’t think anybody really knows, in a long general election contest, how this is going to shake out.”

Nonetheless, Democrats were buoyed by a series of state-by-state general election polls conducted last month by Survey USA. They showed Clinton carrying 20 states and defeating McCain, 276 electoral votes to 262.

Obama did better against McCain in that match-up, 280 electoral votes to 258. In that scenario, Obama carried 24 states. (What happens in Nebraska, where electoral votes are divided by congressional district, might make your head explode.)

As the NBC News political unit put it:

Check out how Obama can win without BOTH Ohio and Florida, as long as he wins Kerry’s states plus Colorado and Virginia. Or toss in New Mexico, Iowa, and Nevada and he can lose Michigan, too. Clinton’s path looks more traditional as long as she doesn’t lose Oregon or Wisconsin. If she adds Ohio or Florida and loses Oregon, she can get it back by adding Arkansas. If she carries Oregon, but loses Wisconsin, she’ll need Florida and Arkansas; Ohio and Arkansas won’t do it.

Despite these many possible scenarios, Schaller said Clinton has already scored one important victory.

“It doesn’t hurt her that people are talking about the general election now and including her in the conversation,” he said, noting that she trails Obama in the popular vote, support from pledged delegates and, this week, from elected officials who are superdelegates. “It reinforces the notion that she is still in it.”

Kilgore says the current debate about the big red and blue map is part of a broader conversation Democrats have been having –- about Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, the opportunity for growth among Latinos, the changing political composition of Virginia, the possibility for big wins in the West and other shifts.

“I think it’s legitimate for candidates to make these arguments,” Kilgore said. “But I wouldn’t take any of this to the bank right now.”

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