POINT CLEAR, Alabama - Democratic nominee John Kerry easily would beat Republican President George W. Bush if the presidential election was held now, political analyst Larry Sabato told members of the Business Council of Alabama Saturday.
``Kerry would win very handily," said Sabato, 52, a frequent guest of network television news shows and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Sabato, speaking at the BCA's governmental affairs conference at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort here, said the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war is the biggest factor hurting Bush's re-election chances.
``He really will need a miracle to win, and the last miracle was for Harry S. Truman," Sabato said in an interview after his speech. Truman pulled his upset presidential victory in 1948.
He said that if Bush hadn't ordered the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year, he likely would be leading in 45 states and heading toward a landslide victory.
``He bet his presidency on Iraq. But he's this close to losing the bet," said Sabato, holding a finger and thumb about an inch apart.
He said polls show support for the Iraq war has dropped from about 70 percent of Americans to about 45 percent or less.
Sabato said Bush also must deal with a mediocre economy and a sour mood among voters that sees the economic glass as half empty, not half full.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who joined dozens of legislators listening to Sabato's speech, said his national perspective offered an interesting contrast to the view from Alabama, which tends to vote heavily Republican for president.
"Apparently, Kerry is doing a lot better in a lot of areas in the country," Baxley said.
BCA President Billy Canary said he invited Sabato to speak because of his reputation for impartial and informed opinions. ``He's the best in the country to give a national overview politically," Canary said.
Sabato said Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, is a liberal in the spirit of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
But Sabato said that likely will matter little before Nov. 2, since this election will mainly be a referendum on Bush and whether he deserves another four years in office.
Sabato called Kerry a cross between a funeral director and Lurch, the stiff butler on the old TV comedy "The Addams Family."
"Only in a year like this could John Kerry be elected. He can't connect with people. He's way to the left of the American mainstream," Sabato said.
"We're right on the verge of electing someone who I believe will be the most liberal president in American history, at least on social and cultural issues."
Sabato said Bush's best chance to win is to focus on "hot-button social issues" and try to paint Kerry as too liberal on issues such as gay marriage, gun control, abortion and the death penalty.
Sabato said Bush's father used such "wedge issues" to beat Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. But that was a time of peace and prosperity, Sabato said. "Now you've got war and an economy that is rocky."
Bush in 2000 won 271 electoral votes to Democrat Al Gore's 267. The 2000 census, reflecting population shifts, raised the number of electoral votes in the states Bush won to 278. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Bush's problem, Sabato said, is that there are fewer states he can hope to take from the Democrats' win column from 2000 than states Kerry can hope to take from Bush's win column that year.
Bush's best chances may be in Iowa, with seven electoral votes, and Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes. Gore won both states by less than 1 percent over Bush. But Kerry now leads polls in both states by about 3 to 5 percentage points.
Sabato said Bush, despite early hopes, has little chance now of taking Minnesota, Michigan or Pennsylvania from the Democrats' side.
Sabato said Kerry's best chance of raiding Bush's 2000 win column is in New Hampshire, which has four electoral votes. Bush won by 7,000 votes over Gore in 2000, but Kerry leads handily in the polls now.
Sabato also said:
West Virginia, with its five electoral votes, is leaning for Kerry. Bush won West Virginia by a margin of 6.3 percent over Gore.
Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, is leaning for Kerry. Bush won the state by a margin of 537 votes over Gore.
Kerry has about a 50-50 chance of winning either Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, or Missouri, with 11 electoral votes. Bush won both states by margins of more than 3 percent in 2000.
Kerry might win Arkansas, with its six electoral votes. Bush won the state by 5.45 percent in 2000, but Sabato said former President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, likely will stump there for Kerry. Gore didn't seek Clinton's help there in 2000.
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