With just more than two weeks left before the November 4th presidential elections, political junkies are just entering their favorite time of year. The constant checks of the various polls, taken state by state, and website after website offering each of us an opportunity to create our own electoral map — establishing the permutations under which our candidate will reach that all-important 270 electoral votes.

To that end, I am going to post three election previews over the course of the next two weeks, to give readers a better sense of those states which are critical to a McCain victory on November 4. None of what I am posting is particularly “earth shattering,” but I do hope you find it helpful in family discussions over the next couple weeks.

In looking at polls, please remember these rules for scrutinizing their relevance to the McCain/Obama race: 1) analyze the polling samples – first, to establish that they are soliciting opinions from likely voters and, second, that the sample contains an appropriate draw from Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Anecdotally, many polls this fall — typically, those associated with major media outlets who have not hidden their desire for an Obama victory — have significantly oversampled Democrats. The ABC/Washington Post poll and the CBS/New York Times polls, in my opinion, consistently oversample Democrats, which has the effect of skewing the poll results; and, 2) please realize that throughout this election cycle, Obama has consistently polled better than he has actually received at the ballot box.

There are a new “15” legitimate battleground states, which have assumed greater importance in recent weeks. These states include Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania. By my count, these 15 states represent 183 electoral votes.

In my analysis, I am going to assume that the following states are still in play: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania. While not addressing each, I will touch on the other states generally.

Let me begin, however, by a simple anecdotal observation which states something about the polls most basically.

Obama is polling anywhere from 10 to 14 points ahead of McCain in Michigan (17 electoral votes.) There is no way that Obama will win Michigan by such a margin. I am going out on a limb and stating the following — Obama will win Michigan by no more than 5 points. I have had the opportunity to drive through significant portions of Michigan in the last few weeks, urban and rural, east and west, north and south and there is simply no way that Obama will win our state by the amount that he is currently polling. Let me go out further on the limb, if Obama wins Michigan by 3 points or less, he will lose the election nationally. Gore won Michigan by 4 points and Kerry won Michigan by 3 points — if Obama does not do better than both of those campaigns in this staunchly democrat year, he is in big trouble.

Why is Michigan relevant? Because Michigan is the alleged bell-weather for all that is electorally right for Obama — upper midwest industrial state where McCain has typically polled very well and where there is no particular tie to Obama. Mark my words, if McCain stays within three points of Obama in Michigan (which incidentally, based on what I have seen in Northern Michigan this weekend, will happen), McCain will be the next president.

Now, on to some of the other states — let’s take a look:

First, let’s eliminate some silliness. Barack Obama will not win the states of West Virginia and Indiana. Oh, I know, the polls taken by this group or that group indicate that it’s tight, etc. Let’s put it this way, if McCain loses West Virginia and Indiana, this election is so beyond over, it’s not even funny. But, thankfully, it’s not going to happen.

West Virginia (5 electoral votes) — West Virginia has been a Republican presidential stronghold for a good long while and Obama did terribly here in the democratic primary. RCP had Senator Clinton ahead by 35% in pre-primary polling, only to win by an even larger 41%. Keep West Virginia in the red state column.

Indiana (11 electoral votes) — Indiana hasn’t gone for a democrat in a presidential election since Moby Dick was a minnow and it won’t happen this year either. Perhaps the most accurate pollster — although often wrong — John Zogby had Obama at a pre-primary lead of .2%. Obama then lost to Senator Clinton by 1.3% in extremely heavy voting. In other words, he overpolled with Zogby by 1.5%. This 1.5% is mere buffer for this traditional redstate. Don’t worry about Indiana – put this one in the McCain column.

Let’s take a look at McCain’s real problems — Nevada (5 electoral votes), New Mexico (5 electoral votes), Colorado (9 electoral votes), Missouri (11 electoral votes), Ohio (21 electoral votes), Virginia (13 electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes) and Florida (27 electoral votes.)

Why are these problems? Because George Bush won every one of these states in winning the presidency in 2004 and they are critical to McCain’s success in 2008. Have no fear — at least not as to all.

Here are my predictions, based on review of existing polling, trends, etc.:

Nevada – western state, which will trend towards fellow westerner, McCain, in the next two weeks. Obama did well there in the primary in caucuses, but there is a world of difference between caucuses and direct voting — just ask Mitt Romney. Has gone from the leaning Obama column to true toss-up — look for it to go leaning McCain within 10 days.

New Mexico – western state, which will tighten significantly in the days ahead. This is a true toss up to lean Obama at the moment. Very popular governor, Bill Richardson, is leading the Obama charge in this traditional republican presidential state. If this doesn’t go to true toss-up by Friday before the election, McCain has reason to worry.

Colorado – western state, which is tightening as we speak. While there is an apparent love affair with Obama in the liberal areas of Aspen, Breckenridge, Vail, etc., remember this state is heavily conservative in the rural areas of southern Colorado. More concerned about New Mexico at this moment than I am about Colorado. Mason Dixon has this as a dead heat as of this morning.

Missouri – midwest state, which is one of Obama’s clearest spots for a pick-up. Given the math, Missouri is a must win for McCain. Right now, polls have this state within the margin of error and McCain until recently was clearly ahead. Expect this one to come back to the redstate column.

Ohio – midwest industrial state and now the focus of much of the angst over Acorn’s recent activity. Ohio is a must for McCain and, once again, will fall into the redstate column. Obama had a terrible time in the democratic primary in Ohio. In a pre-primary poll, Zogby had Obama and Senator Clinton in a dead-heat — she won by 10.1%. This is the type of state where Obama has a difficult time closing the deal — industrial states, not ideologically driven, where blue collar workforce is unusually conservative. Pennsylvania is another state, where this may be a problem for Obama — overpolling, suppressed turnout, and Obama has a problem.

Virginia – east coast, mid-Atlantic state. With Missouri, this represents Obama’s best opportunity to close McCain out with a traditionally conservative state. If McCain can get rural Virginia to the polls, this should stay in the redstate column — however, Democrat Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb are pretty popular in the Blue Ridge state.

North Carolina — the only reason that this state is even being discussed is because Obama did so well here during the primary season. This is a typically conservative redstate mainstay and will be again this year, as well.

Florida — Obama may be wasting a lot of time and money in Florida. In 2004, this was a clear redstate and Obama, until recently, did not have a particularly strong organization in Florida. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s organization in Florida was substantially better organized. Of all the places of potential pick-up for Obama, Florida ain’t it. McCain has always polled well in Florida, Obama has always overpolled in Florida. The military crowd in the panhandle will not go for Obama, despite General Powell’s endorsement. Count on Florida staying in the redstate column.

Where are the potential pick-ups for McCain? Realistically — just a couple spots. New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes)represent the best opportunities for McCain.

If McCain wins New Hampshire, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I wouldn’t conclude that this means he wins the election. Simply stated, the Granite state is its own gig and, despite Dixville Notch, is not the bell-weather for America. However, if Pennsylvania falls to McCain — you know those gun owners and people clinging to their Bibles — then this election is over. Done. So look for McCain to spend quite a bit of time in Pennsylvania, in some combination of he and/or Governor Palin. Yes, I know that Pennsylvania is a solid blue state according to most recent polls — but remember that RCP had Senator Clinton in pre-primary polls, leading Obama by about 6.1%. She won by 9.2%, again demonstrating that Obama may not necessarily “get” the industrial, blue-collar, largely Catholic populations.

Right now, we need not focus on Wisconsin and Minnesota — these are not realistic opportunities for pick-ups at this point. Perhaps, there’s a glimmer of hope in Minnesota, where there is a hotly contested Senate race, involving a likely Republican winner, Norm Coleman. His brand of independent leadership in the Senate may attract support to McCain, but that is speculative at best.

If we are to realistically look at the electoral map, including leaners and putting stupidity aside (like West Virgnia or North Dakota going for Obama), right now, Obama has 255 electoral votes, McCain has 223 electoral votes and there are legitimately 65 toss-ups. Yes, we have an uphill battle, but not insurmountable.

Remember, look at Michigan. If it’s 3 points or less for Obama, we will be swearing in President McCain on January 20, 2009. If it’s 4 points or less, both campaigns are in for a long, long night.