The Campaign Bookends: California and Florida

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J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Al Gore speaks at a rally in Orlando, Fla.

California and Florida were supposed to be in the bag by now. The first and fourth biggest electoral prizes in the election are the geographical bookends of the nation and must-win states for both campaigns. Without Florida's 25 votes, Bush has to win so many swing states (sweeping Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania, for starters) to get his 270 electoral votes that his pollsters don't want to think about it. And without California's 54, Gore would have to be crowned by King George III himself to win this thing.

And yet, like so many other previously "safe" states — Walter Mondale carried Minnesota, for gosh sakes — in the last weeks of this neck-and-neck, tracking-poll election, the stamping grounds have become battlegrounds. A look at the turf:

California:

The Gore campaign wrote this state off as a win months ago, and it's still his to lose. But Bush is edging back into contention. He's spent 30 days in the state since June 1999 and will come to do Leno in the last week of the race, while Gore hasn't visited since Sept. 20 and probably won't be back before the election. Bush also has sunk money into advertising. Meanwhile, the state Democratic party, led by Gov. Gray Davis, is ringing alarm bells as Gore's lead has shrunk to 5 and 7 points in two statewide polls. Ralph Nader, ever the X factor, polls just over 5 percent, a figure with growth potential in the race's final days.

The drama is surely part hand-wringing; Davis has his own reasons for urgency, namely that low Democratic turnout could sink some ballot initiatives (including one on school vouchers) due on November 7, and to that end he's drafted Bill Clinton, popular on the Left Coast, to come and help get out the vote. Bush, meanwhile, benefits nationally from causing any nail-biting at all in a state that his father publicly forswore as unwinnable in 1992. Being competitive in California, where the issues so overwhelmingly favor Gore, is like beating the spread: It makes Bush look like a winner to undecideds in the real battlegrounds. And competitive he is.

Florida:

According to an Oct. 25 New York Times/CBS poll, more than 80 percent of likely Florida voters said the last name of their governor, Jeb Bush, would have no effect on their choice of presidential candidate. That's the first problem for George W. The second problem is that the independents in the state tend to lean Democratic, or at least Clintonic. In 1992, Bill Clinton lost Florida to George W. Bush (41 percent) and Ross Perot (20 percent). In 1996 he won it by picking up nearly all the 11 percent Perot lost. This, of course, is presuming that Gore can hang on to Clinton voters.

The third problem for Bush is that old folks are going with Gore-Lieberman, thanks to the large Jewish vote and lots and lots of stump speeches on Social Security and prescription drugs. Retirees are playing defense on their entitlement programs, and so is Gore. If turnout is low, Gore benefits: Old folks turn out, and they'll turn out for Gore. So Bush has gone back to the former stronghold, visiting once a week since Labor Day and turning up Wednesday with that onetime undecided magnet, John McCain. Some polls show Bush up, others show Gore; all the leads are within the margin of error. If Gore pulls it out, Bush has absolutely no margin of error in the Midwest battlegrounds.

Which is why he spent Friday in Kalamazoo, Mich.