WASHINGTON — Strategists for the two top presidential candidates laid out competing scenarios Wednesday for how their candidates could win the November election.
Their differing strategies hinged largely on whether Democrat Barack Obama can keep all 20 states that Democrat John Kerry won in 2004 — Hawaii and the West Coast, the Upper Midwest, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic — while picking up a couple of states that President Bush won then.
Republican John McCain's challenge is whether he can hold an edge with independents and convert enough Democrats who don't support Obama to make up for the shrinking number of Republicans this year.
"John McCain is not able to play a lot of offense in our view in the Kerry states," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in an hour-long briefing at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
Of the states Kerry won in 2004, Plouffe said the closest this year may be Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire.
McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, in a telephone interview, countered that "winning the Kerry states can be problematic for them. States like Pennsylvania, that's a toss-up right now." Davis recalled Obama's struggle against primary rival Hillary Clinton to win blue-collar voters in Rust Belt states. Polls showing Obama doing better there now merely reflect that Obama's enjoying a short-term bump after winning the Democratic primary campaign, he said.
However, Davis conceded: "The downside for us as a party is we have fewer Republicans today than we did four years ago."
Obama is looking for multiple paths to victory, Plouffe said. That could include:
_ Gaining Western states such as New Mexico and Colorado.
_ Mounting intensive precinct efforts in small-population states where McCain has fewer resources to compete, such as Alaska.
_ Winning swing Midwestern states because of the sour economy and the regional appeal of the freshman Illinois senator.
_ Exploiting shifting demographics and the enthusiasm of black voters for Obama to compete in states that traditionally vote Republican in presidential elections, such as Virginia, North Carolina or Georgia.
If Obama merely wins all of Kerry's states plus Ohio, Plouffe said, "the election's over." And if Obama wins the Kerry states plus Iowa, and then picks up Virginia or North Carolina too, "it's game, set, match."
Plouffe's and Davis' analyses came as Obama and McCain spent another day on the campaign trail laying out differing visions for energy policy in the wake of $4-per-gallon gas.
McCain, in Las Vegas, proposed expanding nuclear power - a controversial issue in a state because of efforts to dispose nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain there.
McCain this week almost seemed to be testing his own political courage as a theme: A day earlier he campaigned in central California, where his support of expanded offshore oil drilling is unpopular, even with many Republicans. The same is true in Florida, which is critical to his victory strategy.
Obama, in Chicago, met privately Wednesday with business leaders to discuss the economy. In a later news conference, Obama reiterated his position that more offshore drilling won't help gas prices and is the wrong way to go.
"I wish I could just make gas prices come down on their own," he said. "No president can."
Plouffe also said that Obama's anticipated visit to Iraq this summer or fall would be as part of a congressional delegation — not a campaign trip — but provided no further details.