11/04/2004 1:00AM

Exit polls made Bush the longshot

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LAS VEGAS - Even for the politically challenged, Tuesday's Election Day was pretty exciting.

Watching the results unfold was a little like following the action on a college football or basketball Saturday. There were a lot of interesting races and referendums on the ballots from coast to coast, and watching the tallies scroll on the tickers on the news channels or on various websites was a lot like looking for the score of a small-conference game on which I've bet.

The marquee matchup, of course, was the presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The most glaring difference from sports scoreboard watching was that each network had a different score. Fox News gave Ohio's electoral votes to Bush, though CNN and other networks were reluctant, obviously still gun shy over the premature announcement that Al Gore had won Florida back in 2000.

Betting on elections is not allowed in Nevada's sports books, but some offshore books took bets on the race, and it was interesting to see how online bettors were interpreting the media's updates.

The past few months, Bush has been around a -150 favorite (bet $1.50 for every $1 you wanted to win) with Kerry in the +130 range (profit $1.30 for every $1 wagered). As early exit-poll data was coming back in favor of the challenger, Kerry went from being an underdog to a favorite during the course of the afternoon. By the closing of the polls at 7 p.m. on the East Coast, Kerry was a -300 favorite at many offshore books with the buyback on Bush around +250 (or odds of 5-2).

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. The exit polls were wrong, Bush got the votes he needed, and bettors who backed him got the cash.

Actually, in the midst of all the madness, the bettors who were in the best position were those who took Kerry early at +130 or thereabouts. When the line swung toward Kerry, those bettors were able to take Bush at +200 or higher and guarantee a profit no matter which side won.

Unfortunately, there aren't any no-lose situations on this Saturday's football card, but I have four live underdogs. I just hope that if, like Kerry, they stay in the game early, they don't get blown out in the end.

Northwestern (+3 1/2) at Penn St.

This line appears not to be based on the relative strength of the two teams but on the fact that Penn St. is traditionally stronger than Northwestern. But that's not the case this year. Northwestern, with a record of 4-4 and a shot at a bowl berth, has beaten Purdue and Ohio St., which have both beaten Penn St., which is 2-6 and staying home for the holidays. Aside from that, the matchups point to a play on Northwestern. The Wildcats have the better offense, while the Nittany Lions have the better defense. That sounds like a wash, but the difference is that while Northwestern should be able to move the ball on Penn St.'s stingy defense, the Penn St. offense has been nonexistent, failing to score more than 13 points in seven weeks since beating Central Florida 37-13. Both teams have been solid "under" teams (Penn St. is 6-0 with the under in games in which a total has been posted; Northwestern is 5-2), so this should be a low-scoring game, and getting more than a field goal is added insurance.

PLAY: Northwestern for 1 unit

Clemson (+17) at Miami-Fla.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants' original send-out on this game was Miami-Fla. -13 1/2, though the Stardust opened the line at 16 last Sunday night and it was bet up to 17 because there were higher numbers offshore. In this case, I think LVSC's number was sharper. Bettors are obviously backing the Hurricanes, assuming they'll bounce back from their 31-28 loss to North Carolina. But I'm not so sure this Miami team is capable of just turning it on like that; in fact, I'm more apt to think the Canes might suffer from the "hangover effect" of having their national title hopes quashed. (That happens to a lot of top programs, except Texas, which seemingly always goes on a winning streak after its annual loss to Oklahoma.) Clemson, winner of three straight, is playing better on both sides of the ball and should take the home crowd out of it early. I'm not saying that Miami's talent won't win out in the end, but Clemson should be able to stay within a score or two and cover the number.

PLAY: Clemson for 1 unit

Virginia Tech at North Carolina (+10 1/2)

I'll also take the team that toppled Miami-Fla. North Carolina's program got a much-needed confidence-booster in the upset win for a team that has been pretty inconsistent (34-0 loss to Louisville and a 46-16 loss to Utah, and then upset wins as double-digit underdogs vs. North Carolina St. and Miami). But mixed in the Tar Heels' results is a 34-13 win over Georgia Tech, a team that dominated VaTech last Thursday before giving up 22 points in the final six minutes. Virginia Tech has been just as inconsistent and shouldn't be favored by this much on the road. I'll take the points and hope the Tar Heels' home field comes through again.

PLAY: North Carolina for 1 unit

Oregon (+21 1/2) at California

California has leapfrogged up to No. 4 in the BCS standings and everyone is praising the Golden Bears, and with good reason, as they've had a stellar campaign. But this is another case where I feel the line is inflated based on the two teams. Oregon has won four straight (admittedly, against the dregs of the Pac-10), and what a lot of people tend to overlook is that with a victory the Ducks would have the inside track on the Rose Bowl (assuming USC runs the table and plays in the Orange Bowl for the BCS title). I just don't see them rolling over by more than three touchdowns, especially if Cal comes in believing its own press clippings and thinks it can just roll over Oregon.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit

Last week: 1-2-1 for a net loss of 1.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 17-16-1 for a net loss of 0.6 units.