WASHINGTON – Election watchers won't have to wait for polls to close in the West to know how things are going. The first clues will come early, when voting ends in Georgia, Indiana and Virginia. If Democrat Barack Obama wins any of the three, he could be on his way to a big victory, maybe even a landslide.
If Republican John McCain sweeps them, he could be headed for a comeback. And if any of these three are too close to call quickly, that could indicate a long night ahead — and, perhaps, a squeaker of a result.
President Bush comfortably won the trio four years ago. But Obama has used his financial muscle and his draw as the youthful first black Democratic nominee to put them, and other historically reliable Republican states, into play.
Thus, the Democrat has several routes he can take to reach the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. McCain's strategy has no room for error; he must win nearly all the states that went to Bush in 2004, and possibly even one or two that voted for Democrat John Kerry that year.
Here's a timetable for armchair election watchers, all given in Eastern Standard Time:
• 7 p.m.: The last polls close in Georgia, Indiana and Virginia, new battlegrounds this year offering a combined 39 votes, as well as in Kentucky and South Carolina, GOP country and 16 votes McCain should easily win, and Vermont, three, a sure thing for Obama.
• 7:30 p.m.: Ohio and North Carolina, both are critical for McCain.
Ohio is a perennial swing state that no Republican has ever lost on his way to the presidency. Bush captured the state twice, and a loss would be difficult, if not impossible, for McCain to weather. He has few options to make up the 20 electoral votes elsewhere, while Obama probably could sustain a defeat here and look for wins in other GOP states where polls show him running stronger.
North Carolina, with 15 votes, is another GOP state that Obama targeted for a pickup from the start of the general election and one where he is working to get blacks and young adults to turn out for him in droves. He also made a late play for West Virginia's five votes. Both are less likely than others to flip; McCain losing either would be disastrous.
• 8 p.m.: Final voting ends in some 15 states and Washington, D.C.
For Obama, the biggest prizes among them are Florida and its 27 votes and 11-vote Missouri, a bellwether for decades. Both went for Bush, and while Obama can afford to lose both, McCain can't.
Should the Republican stumble in those states or others, he hopes to make up any deficit in Pennsylvania, which offers 21 votes and hasn't voted for a Republican since 1988. A loss here could be the death knell for McCain's chances; it's the only Kerry-won state where he and the Republican National Committee are fiercely competing.
Among other Kerry states, McCain hopes New Hampshire and its independent streak will come through for him again; the state, which has four electoral votes, made him in his 2000 presidential primary and saved him eight years later, setting him on course to win the GOP nomination. McCain also has been gunning for a single electoral vote in Maine, one of two states that award them by congressional districts.
In this election-night hour, the Republican will almost certainly rack up 33 quick votes with wins in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee, while Obama banks 47 from Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the nation's capital and 24 more from his home state of Illinois and that of running mate Joe Biden, Delaware.
• 8:30 p.m.: Arkansas should be called for McCain shortly after its polls close. It has six votes.
• 9 p.m.: Another big wave of states closing. The ones to watch are hotly contested Bush states Colorado and New Mexico, where Obama hopes Democratic-leaning Hispanics will lift him to victory. McCain could withstand losing the 14 votes these two offer — as long as he wins just about everywhere else he's competing.
It's also worth keeping an eye on the typically reliable Republican territory of North Dakota and South Dakota. Obama has competed in the former, and there may be overlap effect in the latter. They each offer there votes. Obama is also pushing for one vote in a Nebraska congressional district.
Arizona, McCain's home state, may be another key indicator of which way the election will play out. If McCain loses that state, it's all but certain his presidential dreams are over. Some surveys show the race there having tightened.
The Republican can essentially guarantee victories worth 52 votes in Kansas, Louisiana, Texas and Wyoming, while Obama is virtually certain to collect 72 votes from Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
• 10 p.m.: Voting ends in GOP-held, Iowa, Montana and Nevada, a combined 15 votes. Losing these would be a setback for McCain, while winning them would be a boon for Obama. Utah's five votes are a certainty for McCain.
• 11 p.m.: Four states — mega-prize California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington — are expected to quickly give Obama a combined 77 votes, while Idaho is expected to award its four votes to McCain.
• 1 a.m.: Capping off the night is Alaska, where GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is governor. The Republican ticket is a shoo-in for those three votes.
And then it's over. Or not.
As the past two elections showed, there's no certainty. If it's a contest at all, the victor may not be declared until Wednesday's wee hours. Or later.