28 October 2004 Edition

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The final countdown

Next Tuesday, people from every part of the world will turn on their televisions to watch the first reports from the US Presidential election come in. The battle between George W Bush and John Kerry has so far been intensive and bitter, but the last few days in the run-up to 2 November could prove themselves to be the most exciting yet.

In her second article on the American election, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN looks at the issues that will dominate American airwaves over the next few days, as well as the issues both candidates will be avoiding as they prepare for the final countdown.

Dumb, waffler, liar, inconsistent, incompetent — neither side has been shy with the insults during this Presidential election. The debates between George W Bush and John Kerry this month may have been cordial and civilised affairs, but outside the studio both men took their gloves off long ago. The unfortunate result for the American people is that they have been left with two campaigns that have often amounted to no more than vicious personal attacks.

Bush and Kerry have managed to steer clear of most of the issues voters wanted to see debated — like why so many Americans can't afford health insurance, where the economic recovery that is supposed to be taking place is actually taking place, and why exactly so many American troops are in Iraq?

There is little chance at this stage that any of those topics will be explored any further. Accusations and counter accusations over Iraq will serve as easy point scorers in the final days, as they have done pretty much since the race kicked off. Already this week, Kerry scored hugely against his opponent after it was revealed that 380 tonnes of US weaponry managed to go 'missing' in Iraq over a month ago.

So, with the country polarised and only a relative handful of voters still undecided, the campaigns have only three final tasks: focus on a few pivotal states, mobilise their supporters, and get ready to challenge the outcome.

Key battlegrounds

The clock is ticking and one thing both men agree on is that there is no point fighting losing battles. The Bush and Kerry teams have already pulled campaigners out of states that are certainties for one or the other man and redistributed them in the eleven states that remain undecided, among them Pennsylvania, Ohio and once again, Florida.

Voters in these areas are now being subjected to a constant barrage of television advertising by the campaigns and their political surrogates. The two campaigns will spend close to $40 million on television adverts over the next few days. The sums are staggering, representing 10% of spending on broadcast adverts since March.

Both sides acknowledge that all that frantic activity has rapidly diminishing returns. The unlucky residents of the swing states have probably seen all the political advertising they can stand. But what matters most this week is mobilisation: the battle to get a bigger proportion of your supporters to the polls than the other side.

The Democrats have long prided themselves on their get-out-the-vote capabilities, but over the past four years Karl Rove, the president's chief strategist, has built a centralised machine, precinct by precinct, that could erase that traditional Democratic advantage.

And mobilisation is the key, because this election could come down to a few votes. The goal for each man is to amass 270 votes in the electoral college, a body consisting of delegates or electors from each state, whose numbers are roughly proportionate to that state's population. In all the big swing states, electors are allotted on a winner-take-all basis.

At the moment, both Kerry and Bush can count on about 200 electoral college votes each, leaving 138 up for grabs. Of those, Florida accounts for 27, Pennsylvania 21, and Ohio 20.

Four years ago, Al Gore was trailing by a few points in most national polls, just as Kerry is today, but on election day itself Gore won half-a-million more votes. That last-minute turnaround was a direct result of the Democrats' superior capacity for mobilisation. This year, however, the Democrats may lose that advantage, as they are matched by a meticulously constructed network of Republican volunteers.

I fought the law

The tightness of the race at this stage means that voting will probably be symbolised by more than just the frenzied marshalling of each side. Both parties are getting ready to battle everything in the courts should there be any confusion or irregularities at the polling stations.

Ohio, a key swing state, has already seen controversy. On 15 October, Republican Secretary of State J Kenneth Blackwell issued a series of rulings on obscure issues like provisional ballots, voting notices to parolees and the weight of registration forms.

Democrats say Blackwell has repeatedly tried to disenfranchise their voters and have compared him to Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who made her name in the chaotic election of 2000.

The legal combat in Ohio is recurring in virtually every swing state and both sides have been organising their strategies for months. In New Mexico, Republicans unsuccessfully sued the Democratic secretary of state to require that most new voters show identification at the polls. In Florida, Democrats have filed ten election lawsuits against Republican officials. In Pennsylvania, plans by the Democratic governor to have state workers help monitor the election have stirred Republican suspicions. In Colorado, the Republican secretary of state has accused the Democratic attorney general of not aggressively investigating registration fraud.

Republicans, worried about record levels of new registrations, say Democrats have abetted fraud. Democrats, who cite a bitter history of efforts to deny minority and low-income voters the ballot, say Republicans are trying to suppress the vote.

This latest trend of creating legal teams arose from the 2000 election. Bush's victory left a bitter taste in Democrat mouths after it was alleged that Republicans had fixed voting in Florida with the help of Bush's brother and State Governor, Jed Bush. The unofficial theme song of this year's election seems to be the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again.

While some of legal manoeuvring is clearly political spin designed to energise party loyalists while assuring fence-sitting voters that their ballots will count, the legal preparations are very real. Lawyers recruited by both parties are preparing strategies to challenge new voters at the polls, to keep polling stations open late if lines are long and to demand recounts if victory margins are razor-thin.

Republicans say they have established the most extensive legal operation in their history, recruiting thousands of lawyers to help monitor 30,000 areas in battleground states.

Democrats say they are mobilising in even greater numbers than the Republicans, having recruited more than 10,000 lawyers to serve as poll watchers.

With the amount of votes both sides could contest, Americans may be lucky if they get a result by May 2005.

Judge us not

The US media will be consumed with these issues over the coming days — what each man is saying about Iraq, whose lawyers are where and how the swing states will swing. But while the candidates remain fixated on a Middle Eastern country, a crucial debate concerning their own country is being overlooked.

An announcement on Monday that the US Supreme Court's Chief Justice William Rehnquist (80) is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, has highlighted the fact that whoever becomes President will have more powers than the man who served the last four years. The next President is likely to make several appointments to the Supreme Court, which will have a crucial impact on the constitutional status of abortion and gay rights for far longer than his four years in the White House.

Kerry has avoided this subject because he does not want to be put in a position where he is naming too many 'liberal' judges. However, in dodging the debate he has missed out on a chance to show up Bush's conservative plans for America's courts.

Bush, for obvious reasons has also steered clear of the debate. But his intentions are clear. In his last campaign, Bush declared Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his favourite judges and the nominations he has made to the lower courts bear that out. Scalia and Thomas have both been referred to by their critics as just to the right of Mussolini and have consistently pushed conservative laws in the courts.

Both have tried to overturn pro-choice case decisions, something which, if done, would set back an American woman's right to choose abortion by about 50 years.

If they become the Constitution's final arbiters, the rights of racial minorities, gay people and the poor could be rolled back considerably. Both men dissented from the Supreme Court's narrow ruling upholding the University of Michigan's affirmative-action programme, and appear eager to dismantle a wide array of diversity programmes. When the Court struck down Texas's 'Homosexual Conduct' law last year, holding that the police violated US citizen John Lawrence's right to liberty when they raided his home and arrested him for having sex there, Scalia and Thomas sided with the police.

Bush has claimed that he wants judges who will apply the law, not make it. But Justices Scalia and Thomas are judicial activists, eager to make their views into constitutional law. Both Bush and Kerry are wary of any issue whose impact on undecided voters cannot be readily predicted, such as Supreme Court judges. But if President Bush gets the chance to name three young justices who share the views of Justices Scalia and Thomas, it could fundamentally change America for decades.

Kerry, meanwhile, has expressed 'liberal' views on most 'moral' issues, such as abortion, gay rights, stem cell research and so forth. It can be assumed that if elected, his nominees will also reflect those positions.

What will be will be

The problem with having the most closely fought election in decades is that political pundits cannot predict a winner. The latest polls in America put Bush narrowly ahead of Kerry, but as usual, each forecast comes with a 2.5% margin of error and a health warning.

For the first time in a long time, Democrats stand united behind their man. Much of this stems not from their unanimous liking of Kerry, but their unanimous despising of Bush. Kerry has shown himself to be articulate, liberal, intelligent and most importantly, 'presidential-like'. His wife Theresa Heinz Kerry, has been called the new Hillary Clinton. To the outside world, which has reacted strongly against the Bush administration, he and his family seem like a safe ticket.

To Americans, however, he lacks one thing.

"I think that Kerry's biggest problem is that he is not Clinton," Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said this week. "A lot of people are expecting a Bill Clinton, and that's not who Kerry is, but on the other hand his heart is right."

And therein lies one of the Democrats' biggest problems. Clinton was seen as the saviour of black America in the '90s, and at the time of Al Gore running, the Democrats were receiving a massive 90% of the black vote.

But according to the American Census Bureau, black support for Bush has risen by 8% in the last four years. Many blacks in Southern states are finding it hard to identify with a stiff, monied liberal from Massachusetts.

The Democrats have also managed to lose some of their traditional working class base. A shock poll from Michigan this week revealed that voters in the long-established Democrat state are now tied between the two candidates. The poll inspired a flurry of activity from both sides, both rushing to the state — one to re-establish its support base, the other to capitalise on a surprise stroke of luck.

The Bush campaign is taking its own beatings. The main newspapers in Ohio, a massive swing state, have come out in support of Bush, but many Ohio voters don't share their papers' enthusiasm.

The state has suffered a massive economic blow in the last four years, due to jobs outsourcing. Cleveland, its capital, has now outstripped Detroit as the poorest city in America — and its residents aren't happy at the Bush policy of cutting off dole cheques after 26 weeks.

Bush's campaign slogan has been that voters know how he does his job. Unfortunately, they do. He has been accused of running the economy into the ground, doubling the country's fiscal debt, dragging the country into a war that nobody wanted and courting big business at the expense of 'middle America'.

But he has also shown himself to be very human with voters, unlike his almost robotic-like opponent, and his campaign team have really built upon his consistent leader reputation.

The race is too tight to call. Until the votes are counted next week, there really is no clear indication of which man will be the 44th president of the United States. One thing is certain, however. With both men legally geared up to contest the aftermath, this election could run and run.

Right behind you

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post broke the story of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, they created a new era for the American media. The '50s and '60s, dominated by McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, consecutively, had seen an indirect and sometimes very direct censorship of the US media. But all this was reversed when Woodward and Bernstein helped to bring about the downfall of President Richard Nixon. The media had been endowed with a new power, that of king making and king breaking.

Throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, various US news outlets have been attempting to capitalise on that power, and their endorsements or criticisms, have been left ringing in each of the candidates' ears.

This week, Bush's campaign in Florida, which handed him victory in 2000, took a blow when two of the state's newspapers failed to endorse his candidacy. The Orlando Sentinel, which has not endorsed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson, opted for John Kerry.

"This president has utterly failed to fulfil our expectations," its editorial said.

Another Florida newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, chose not to endorse either candidate. It is the first time since 1952 that the paper has not backed the Republican candidate for the presidency.

However in Colorado, another swing state, the Denver Post endorsed President Bush, citing the "war on terror" as the crucial issue.

The New York Times has given Kerry its full backing and on Monday, The Washington Post finally came out in support of the Massachusetts Senator, albeit with reservations.

"On balance," the paper said, "we believe Mr Kerry, with his promise of resoluteness tempered by wisdom and open-mindedness, has staked a stronger claim on the nation's trust to lead for the next four years.

All in all, Kerry's camp has claimed that 113 daily newspapers with a total of 14.4 million readers have endorsed the Kerry-Edwards ticket, 27 of which endorsed Mr Bush in 2000 - including Bush's local Crawford, Texas, paper, the Lone Star Iconoclast. Bush had received endorsements from 70 daily newspapers with circulation of 8.6 million. If people believe what they read in the papers, Kerry might just take this election.

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