LOS ANGELES -- George W. Bush is heading into the fall campaign with a seemingly solid Southern base of support and more chances than Al Gore to pick up enough states to gain the presidency, according to polls and interviews with politicians in both parties.
The Texas governor's strength throughout the South and the Rocky Mountain West help to put him more than three-quarters of the way toward the 270 electoral votes he will need to capture the White House.
The vice president, by contrast, seems to have locked up only about seven states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia, and he might have to sweep most of the battleground states if he is to win.
Two of the states in the Gore column, however, are California and New York, between them accounting for 87 electoral votes, nearly one-third of the total needed to win.
Karl Rove, the Bush campaign's chief strategist, sees "an embarrassment of opportunities" all over the electoral map.
Gore, meantime, must overcome considerable obstacles.
Regarded by voters as less likable than Bush, he is being weakened by fallout from President Clinton's personal misdeeds and his own involvement in campaign funding abuses. He also faces a potentially damaging rival on his left in Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.
He maintains that Gore will win if the country contrasts Gore's 25 years of "significant public service" with Bush's less than six years in office.
With the national conventions over, both candidates immediately headed to battleground states, with Gore spending this weekend riding a riverboat down the Mississippi along Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, while Bush was stumping in New Mexico.
Both sides say the presidential contest will tighten, as Gore benefits from positive publicity surrounding his speech at the Democratic convention. A new Newsweek poll, released yesterday, showed Gore leading Bush by 6 percentage points, 48-42.
Post-convention bumps in the polls often fade, however.
With the election 11 weeks away, each camp is preparing for a close finish.
But presidential elections are actually 50 separate state elections, because of the Electoral College. And a careful look at the map reveals the dimensions of the advantage Bush enjoys and the daunting task Gore confronts.
Many of the states that voted for Clinton in the past two elections appear headed back into the Republican column, which means that Gore might have to take nearly all of the five largest battleground states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.
Bush, on the other hand, could get elected by winning as few as two of them.
Gore "has got to draw to an inside straight to win. He's got to have almost everything going his way," says Charles Cook, who publishes an independent newsletter on politics.
Bush is favored to carry at least five states that voted for Clinton in the past two elections: Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada and New Hampshire.
At the same time, Gore will be forced to spend time and money in states that have gone reliably Democratic in recent elections.
At least five states that voted Democratic in the past three elections are up for grabs this time: Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.
"This is the party that's won 350-plus [electoral votes] in the last two elections," says Tad Devine, a senior Gore campaign strategist. "Sure, we're protecting our turf. Our turf is a lot bigger."
A key to Bush's advantage is the Republican Party's electoral lock on the South and West, which Clinton managed to break with assistance from Ross Perot's third-party candidacy in 1992 and a lackluster Republican challenge from Bob Dole four years later.
"What we have now is basically the pattern that was there in the 1980s," says Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist. "I wouldn't be surprised if Bush carried every Southern state except Tennessee [Gore's home state], and he could even take that."
Gore's weakness in the South is particularly striking because it is his home region. Though he grew up in Washington as a senator's son, he represented Tennessee in Congress for 16 years.
The only Democrats to win the White House in the past 35 years have been Southerners, Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who benefited from strong Southern support. But the Gore campaign has all but written off most of the South.
Black is critical of Gore's populist message, which he sees as a throwback. The vice president is styling himself as a "fighter for working families," which is "the kind of rhetoric his father used" as a Tennessee senator in the 1950s and 1960s, Black says, "when you really didn't have a middle class" in the South.
"There's a huge middle class in the South today, and a lot of these people see someone like George Bush as a lot more responsive to their interests than Gore," Black adds.