WASHINGTON -- In their initial private assessments, advisers to President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry see the United States divided almost exactly in half, with both sides identifying virtually the same states as likely to determine November's winner.
An enormous overlap in early spending on political advertisements by the two camps underscores this convergence. Bush, Kerry, and two interest groups supporting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee already have bought television advertisements in 16 states that split narrowly between Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
Strikingly, the campaigns also believe that both Bush and Kerry begin their battle with about 200 electoral votes leaning their way, of the 270 needed for election. And strategists for the two candidates point to Ohio as the single state most likely to pick the victor if the race is close.
A senior Republican strategist close to the Bush campaign said that if either campaign could choose one state "to know the result of on Election Day [in order] to know who is going to win, that state would be Ohio."
Absent major changes in the economy or national security, neither campaign expects wholesale changes in the alignment of the states just four years after Bush squeezed out the second-narrowest Electoral College majority since 1800.
"Overall, it's a very similar equation" this year, said Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist.
But the increasing spotlight on Ohio -- which Gore abandoned in the last weeks of the 2000 race to concentrate on Florida -- shows how economic and demographic changes have subtly shifted this year's calculations.
Florida, the most closely contested major state in 2000, remains near the top of the "win" list for Bush and Kerry. But Republicans are confident that a good economy has tilted the state slightly in their direction, and some Democrats agree.
The Democrats' focus appears to have moved from Southern states that Gore fought for but lost in 2000 toward other possible pickups: Southwestern states -- especially Nevada and Arizona -- and states that have lost jobs under Bush, such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Missouri.
Bush advisers see states with large numbers of rural and culturally conservative voters -- principally Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Oregon -- as their best opportunities to capture electoral votes Gore won in 2000.
"The national security issue works fairly well for Bush in the Midwest, . . . But the president has some economic weaknesses," said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.
In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote nationally by more than 500,000 votes, but slipped into the White House by winning 30 states, 271 electoral votes, compared with the 267 electoral votes Gore collected in 20 states. Since the 12th Amendment established the Electoral College in 1804, only Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, won by a narrower margin -- one electoral vote in 1876.
Bush begins his quest for reelection with one key advantage. Because of population growth, the 30 states he carried will cast seven more electoral votes in 2004. That means if the states divide just as they did in 2000, he would beat Kerry, 278 electoral votes to 260.
An internal document prepared for the Kerry campaign and obtained by the Los Angeles Times gives Bush a clear advantage in 21 states, with 179 electoral votes. Those states are clustered in an "L" shape, running from the Mountain West through the Great Plains and into the South.
The Kerry tally gives the Massachusetts senator a clear edge in the District of Columbia and 13 states in the Northeast, as well as in the West, California and Washington. These states total 183 electoral votes.
The assessment tabs Arizona, Arkansas, and Tennessee -- states Bush won four years ago -- as leaning toward him this year. Three other states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire -- are seen as leaning toward Kerry.
With the leaners, Kerry leads Bush in this analysis, 225 electoral votes to 206.
The Kerry document labels 10 states as tossups -- with Florida, Missouri, and Ohio the major prizes.
The Bush team's calculation is almost identical, except it describes Pennsylvania and New Hampshire as tossups, according to the GOP strategist familiar with the campaign's planning.
That means the Bush side agrees with the Kerry camp that the president is favored in states with a combined total of 206 electoral votes. But under the Republican scenario, Kerry has the advantage in states with 200 electoral votes.
The campaigns are likely to adjust their calculations many times before November. But whatever else changes, few would be surprised this fall if the road to the White House runs mainly along Interstates 70 and 75, which slice through the industrial heartland and come together in the middle of Ohio.