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Can Kerry carry the day?

With two days to go for the American presidential election, it has become a race too close to call, writes Sridhar Krishnaswami

John Kerry has finished strongly to cover George W. Bush's initial lead in the popularity stakes. Photo: AP.

THE UNITED States goes to the polls in two days, bitterly divided over the Republican administration's policies of the last four years. The big question is: will the disappointment with George W. Bush be strong enough to bring in John Kerry?

This is the first wartime election since Vietnam — a period Americans are constantly trying to put behind them. But Iraq brings back memories of the political antics of that era in the way this Republican administration manipulated a traumatised nation in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

That the race is extremely tight is evident from a raft of polls. A national poll shows Mr. Bush up by two points; another shows a mere one point lead for the President; a Washington Post-ABC poll in the aftermath of the third debate showed the two tied at 48 per cent. Tracking polls have showed Mr. Bush ahead by between four points and one; and all are within the margin of error.

Voter registration up

There has been a spurt in voter registration. One estimate is that this time around the turnout is going to be between 58 and 60 per cent with some 118 million to 121 million Americans heading to the polling booths on November 2 — an increase of between 12 million and 15 million people over 2000.

Any rise in the turnout could help Mr. Kerry even if Mr. Bush hopes to cash in on the votes of the targeted 5 million or so Evangelical fundamentalists. To make matters worse for the incumbent, a decline in the turnout of moderate Republicans is predicted. This group is unhappy with Mr. Bush's policies, especially over fiscal policy and Iraq.

If the vote is strictly along policy lines and by current sentiment, Mr. Bush should be getting ready to pack his bags for Crawford, Texas. Americans are not only miffed that this administration took them for a ride on Iraq but are worried about what is in store.

George W. Bush

The consensus by and large has been that this Bush administration has more than successfully alienated the international community by pursuing a unilateralist foreign policy. Besides, by putting all its eggs in the Iraq basket, Washington may have ignored other issues and trouble spots to the longer term detriment of the U.S.' interests.

In fact, the Kerry campaign has held the war in Iraq to be a deviation from the focus on the war on terror and the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Sense of betrayal

Even if the Bush administration remains unapologetic over domestic and foreign policies, it is being forced to come to terms with other aspects of Iraq and the war on terror. Forget for a minute the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib that has battered the American image. Arab Americans and Muslims in general in the U.S. who went along with Mr. Bush in 2000 have clearly abandoned him. The reason — a sense of betrayal.

This is not just about Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a lot of it has to do with the Patriot Act and the severe infringements of civil liberties.

On the economic front, much as the Bush administration may argue that it was handed a recession when it took office, the feeling by and large has been that the Republicans have squandered the gains of the Clinton era, particularly on the jobs front. And the Democrats and the Kerry campaign have consistently hammered this Bush team for giving tax breaks to the wealthy and in general acting as the cheerleaders for big business.

With just two days to go, the focus is not on the debates where Mr. Kerry clearly came out ahead. Americans are not looking to elect a debater to lead them. In fact, the attention of the candidates has not even been on the differences over policies. Rather the temptation has been to prey on the fear factor, be it over social security, medicare, terrorism or the draft.

The final stretch has seen the Kerry camp raise the issue of the draft in going after the Republican administration for its "greatest blunder" in Iraq.

"With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of the draft. Because if we go it alone, I don't know how you do it with the current over-extension," Mr. Kerry said.

But Mr. Bush came back: "The only one to talk about the draft is my opponent. The only ones to advocate a draft are the Democrats. The only way to avoid a draft is to elect me."

The bottom line is clear. To Mr. Kerry, the Republican incumbent has a track record of getting it wrong on policy issues and being unwilling to make amends even after being proved wrong. To Mr. Bush, his Democratic challenger has shown inconsistency of views and is outside the mainstream.

Conventional wisdom has it that an incumbent's approval rating should be 50 per cent or higher — Mr. Bush's number is down to 47 per cent in one of the latest surveys.

If there is so much going against the incumbent President why is there so much uncertainty about the outcome? The answer lies in the manner the Bush-Cheney campaign has gone about its business. Not even Mr. Bush's worst critic would see him as politically naive. Besides, he has a small group of advisors who have crafted a campaign strategy that stays away from pushing the `achievements' of the last four years, something an incumbent normally would want to talk about.

Targeting Kerry

Instead, the Bush-Cheney campaign has sought to highlight the so-called inconsistencies in Mr. Kerry's 30 years in the Senate. The Republicans have succeeded to an extent in raising doubts about Mr. Kerry's stand on such issues as defence, foreign policy and leadership.

In fact, some who see Mr. Bush coming out on top on November 2 — by 4-6 points — hold these issues to be the main determinants of the final outcome.

If Mr. Kerry fails to make it, the fault could lie with his campaign team for not sufficiently packaging and selling his message.

In an election that is determined not by the popular vote but the complicated math of the electoral college, the battleground States are becoming all the more critical. A handful of States are going to be critical — Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, Nevada, Florida, and New Mexico. And it could come down to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

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