Wanna Bet?

An online gambling parlor posts odds on the odd--including the contest for Arizona's presidential vote

Is Arizona still a battleground state in November's White House sweepstakes?

Democrats insist the state remains up for grabs between President George W. Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, but one of the nation's best-respected pollsters, Zogby International, isn't counting Arizona as one of the 16 states considered in play, although neighboring New Mexico and Nevada are in the company's tracking scope.

The most recent public poll, released last week by KAET-TV of Phoenix, suggests that Bush is pulling ahead of Kerry. Of the 400 voters surveyed in late June, 47 percent said they favored Bush, while just 35 percent said they supported Kerry. Another 16 percent were undecided, and 2 percent were behind independent candidate Ralph Nader.

The poll showed a widening lead for Bush, who led Kerry 48 percent to 41 percent in May--then a statistical tie because it was within the poll's margin of error.

The poll also indicated that Bush's ratings were on the rise in other areas. Half of those polled supported Bush's handling of the economy; 52 percent supported his handling of the war on terrorism; and 44 percent supported his handling of Iraq war. Overall, 52 percent approved of the job Bush is doing as president.

Much of Kerry's support came from voters who hate the president. Asked why they were leaning in Kerry's direction, 56 percent said they were voting for him because they didn't like Bush, while just 36 percent said they supported Kerry.

Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill, who conducted the poll, noted that a significant gender gap has opened in the race, with 55 percent of the men surveyed supporting Bush and less than one in three supporting Kerry.

Despite the poll, Democrats remain confident the race will tighten again before November. The Kerry campaign certainly hasn't given up, with the Massachusetts Democrat visiting a Hispanic conference in Phoenix just last month. And state party leaders managed to eliminate one possible distraction by knocking Ralph Nader off the Arizona ballot last week.

But if you follow the money--the gambling money, that is--Bush is looking strong in Arizona, although he's not quite considered a lock.

The odds on the presidential race--as well as a long line of other unusual propositions--are available at tradesports.com, an online betting parlor that offers action on everything from Major League Baseball to the weekend box office.

Based in Ireland, Tradesports bills itself as a "a trading exchange, not a sportsbook." Whether that makes it legal is between you and federal prosecutors, but the Web site basically works much like a stock exchange, offering "contracts" at variable prices on different propositions--say, whether Bush will win Arizona in November.

At the moment, Bush's Arizona contract is trading at an "ask" price of 76, so if you bought a minimum of 10 contracts at $7.60 apiece, you'd be investing $76. If Bush wins in November, your contracts will be worth 100, or $10 apiece, so you'd collect a total of $100, for a handsome profit of $24. If he loses, the contracts are worth nothing, and you lose your investment of $76.

If you're one of those optimistic Democrats who thinks Kerry is going win Arizona, you could sell Bush contracts instead of buying them. The current "bid" price on selling Bush's Arizona contracts is 71. So if you were to sell 10 Bush contracts, and Bush doesn't win Arizona, the contract price will be zero, and you'll have cleared $71.

Like a stock exchange, there are other options: You can get out before Election Day, at a profit if the contracts are trading higher, or at a loss if they've plummeted in value. And you can get into more sophisticated financial maneuvers, including over/unders.

Think you know how many electoral votes Bush will win? Or what color our Homeland Security alert level will be in upcoming months? Or whether Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will be "captured/neutralized" by Sept. 30? You can bet any or all of the above.

Among the other propositions at tradesports.com:

· Will Arizona Sen. John McCain win re-election? Judging from the odds, he's a shoo-in: McCain contracts are going for 92.5.

· Will Martha Stewart serve more than 14 months? It's nearly even money here, with contracts listed at 52.

· Will Michael Jackson be found guilty of lewd acts toward a minor? Contracts are at 65.

· Will the U.S. presidential election be certified by Dec. 13? If you think another Florida fiasco is in the making, you should give this one some thought: Selling 100 contracts now could win $959 come December.

· An interesting parley: Will Bush be re-elected and Osama bin Laden eliminated/neutralized by November? Contracts on that proposition list at 15 each.

An acquaintance we'll call Pinkerton (he prefers to remain anonymous, mostly because of the dubious legality of Internet gambling) has had mixed luck since he mailed off a $500 check to tradesports.com.

Pinkerton first learned of the site about a year ago, after the Pentagon announced plans to start taking a futures market based on potential terrorist action last summer--a plan that was swiftly scrapped after details leaked to the press.

"I figured, the news was always getting worse, so why not make some money off of it?" he says.

Pinkerton says he initially lost a bundle. (He got hammered out the gate because he simply couldn't believe the people of California would elect Arnold Schwarzenegger governor.) But now he's up about 50 percent on his original $500 stake.

"I kinda wish I'd put my entire portfolio there," he says.

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