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A Viewer's Guide to Calling the Election

By Howard Kurtz
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

With a handy list of key states and an ample supply of popcorn, the sharp-eyed television viewer should be able to call the presidential election Tuesday night well before the networks.

Even if Bill Clinton rolls to a big victory over President Bush and Ross Perot, it's unlikely that the networks will project him as the winner until at least 9:30 or 10 p.m. That's because networks will not use exit polls to "call" a state until most of its polls have closed, and no proclamation will be made until one candidate is projected to have 270 electoral votes. (CBS called Bush's 40-state win in 1988 at 9:17 p.m.)

But there will be early indications of whether Bush can pull off an upset or Clinton is headed for an easy win. And anyone watching the tube can regale friends and neighbors with his very own "talking head" commentary. Just leave yourself some wiggle room, the ways the pros do.

* Earliest states to watch: Polls close at 6 p.m. in Kentucky (8 electoral votes) and Indiana (12). A Clinton victory in Kentucky, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1976 (a statistic you'll hear over and over Tuesday night), is a good harbinger for the Arkansas governor. If Clinton wins Vice President Dan Quayle's home state, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1964, he may have a big night.

Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, has cooked up a "10-10" rule. "If Clinton wins Kentucky by 10 points or more and Bush wins Indiana by 10 or less, then indications are a big night for Clinton. If Clinton barely wins or loses Kentucky, and Bush wins big in Indiana, it's going to be a close election."

* The big enchilada: Texas (32). It is virtually impossible for Bush to win re-election without his adopted home state. Because the electoral math is against Bush, he faces many more must-win states than Clinton.

* Two other enchiladas: Florida (25) and Ohio (21). In addition to Texas, "if Bush carries Florida and Ohio, he has a chance of winning this thing," says CNN commentator William Schneider. "If he loses one, he's in trouble. If he loses both, he ain't going to win."

* Big yawns: California (54), New York (33), Massachusetts (12), Maryland (10) and West Virginia (5) are all solidly in the Clinton column.

* 7:00 surprises: A Clinton victory in Georgia (13) would show he is breaking the Republican stranglehold on the South. "If Clinton wins Georgia, that's a sign the landslide is starting," says ABC's Hal Bruno. A Bush loss in New Hampshire (4), solidly Republican since Lyndon B. Johnson, could signal a New England sweep for the Democrats. Florida and Virginia (13) also close their polls.