By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican-leaning states in the South and West will gain clout from U.S. population figures released on Tuesday, dealing a blow to President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats that could linger for years.
The Census estimates show a population shift from Democratic states in the Northeast and Midwest to Republican strongholds like Texas, Utah and South Carolina, giving those states more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The new figures also could play a role in the 2012 presidential and congressional races. The number of House seats determines each state's representation in the Electoral College, which is used to elect a president.
The release of the figures kicks off the once-a-decade, state-by-state fight over redrawing congressional lines to ensure each House district represents roughly the same number of people, as required by the U.S. Constitution.
The process, known as redistricting, is intensely partisan in many states as the parties fight to draw the boundaries in a way that makes House districts more reliably Republican or Democratic.
States that gain seats must determine where to place the new districts, with the party in power in each state looking for maximum political advantage. States that lost seats will decide which districts to combine, meaning some House incumbents will face each other in the 2012 election.
"Now everyone can start to figure out who has a target on their back," said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The figures were released by the Census Bureau as part of its 2010 national population survey, conducted every 10 years.
PRO-OBAMA STATES LOSE
Much of the population shift came from more Democratic states won by Obama in the 2008 presidential election to more conservative states won by Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Of the eight states that gain at least one of the 435 House seats, five were won by McCain. Staunchly Republican Texas will add four House seats, helped by a growing Hispanic population, while Arizona, Utah, Georgia and South Carolina -- all reliably conservative -- will pick up one each.
Three states won by Obama in 2008 gained seats -- Florida, which picks up two, and Washington and Nevada, which gain one each.
In 2008, Obama won eight of the 10 states losing seats, including New York and Ohio, which lose two each. Losing one seat will be Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey.
The states won by McCain that lose a seat are Missouri and Louisiana, which suffered a population drop after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
House Democrats played down the negative impact and said they would have their own opportunities for gains with the growth of Hispanic and other party constituencies in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Washington.
Representative Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic House campaign committee, said there would be no repeat of the 2003 Texas redistricting fight engineered by former House Republican leader Tom DeLay that cost Democrats five congressional seats.
"Never again will we allow Republicans to be 'Tom DeLayed' and illegally game redistricting for political advantage," he said.
The changes in the House seats could mean Obama faces a tougher electoral map when he seeks re-election in 2012 but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down that effect.
"I don't see that there's any reason why in a number of these places both parties can't be equally competitive, and I don't think it will have a huge practical impact," Gibbs told reporters.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)