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The Reporters: US mid-terms

All entries by this reporter: James Westhead

Political soundbites

Do Republicans have all the best soundbites?

It seemed that way as I hunted through tape after tape of final Democrat stump speeches and interviews looking for a good "clip" - the phrase we tend to use in the BBC rather than "soundbite". I had plenty to choose from in President Bush's final campaign speech in Texas - even though, as he himself admitted: "No one's ever accused me of being the best English speaker in America."

The point about a "clip" is that it has to express a single, simple idea in a clear concise way. You don't have to agree with it but you have to understand it and ideally it has to be short and delivered with passion. For some reason the Democrats' election supremo Chuck Schumer didn't deliver that as he peered over his glasses in press briefings. More surprisingly even, their chief cheerleader Bill Clinton - usually a good phrase-crafter - didn't hone one down for his last-minute stump speech.

There were lots of jokes, stories and unwieldy metaphors involving the founding fathers - but nothing that fitted into that all-important fifteen seconds. I know - how superficial of me. But it makes you wonder. Do the Democrats have any clear message? In the end I found a good clip from a very junior Democrat politician campaigning excitedly in Ohio, "Everywhere people stop me, saying they are going to vote Democrat." She added emphatically - "the reason? Because they are just completely fed up!"

The truth is that if the Democrats win - it will be largely because people voted against the Republicans, not for the Democrats. Maybe the Democrats don't need soundbites to win this election - but they will need to do some real work on their message before the next one.

Scary spending

A figure I came across tonight suddenly put American spending on elections into a frightening context. We Brits tend to think US politicians raise and spend a scarily absurd amount to get themselves elected. In an earlier blog I mentioned the total had reached more than $1bn for both Republicans and Democrats combined on these
mid-terms. A lot to obtain a satisfactory result on 7 November. Well perhaps not.

halloween_getty203b.jpgGuess how much Americans will spend exactly a week earlier on an equally horrible occasion populated by some equally scary characters. Yes you guessed it - I'm talking about Halloween. Well, according to the National Retail Foundation, Americans will spend more than $4.95bn - yes billion - on costumes, candy, cards and decorations -that's five times more than they spend on democracy. Now that really is scary!

Quietly 'conflicted'

The 300-millionth American has arrived - plus a few thousand more in the last 24 hours - but why the virtual silence from the White House on the matter?

newborn_getty.jpgPerhaps one reason for the coyness is political - just who are these extra Americans? "It's only a few weeks before an election when illegal immigration is a high-profile issue and they don't want to make a big deal out of it," William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute told me.

It's certainly true that many of the new Americans are not cute little babies. Immigrants - illegal or otherwise - make up roughly 40% of the expansion. And that's something Republicans, to use my favourite current Americanism, are "conflicted" over.

The Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, himself an immigrant from Cuba, says the Bush administration isn't playing down the milestone. "I would hate to think that we are going to be low key about this," said Gutierrez, whose department oversees the Census Bureau. "I would hope that we make a big deal about it." But when pressed the only celebration his department organised was some cake and fruit punch for census staff.

It's a shame in a way because the immigration sensitivity overshadows the real reason for this extraordinary growth, unmatched by the shrivelled, ageing populations in the rest of the developed world. That is simply that Americans have more babies than Europeans.

Mr Frey says he's not sure why - it may be their greater religiosity, a lingering frontier spirit or simply greater optimism about the future. It's that attractive optimism that means the melting pot is getting bigger but also getting more mixed. Politically sensitive perhaps - but uniquely American too.

Sex and money

Sex and money - two essential ingredients in the best political dramas, and this mid-term election is proving no different. We have certainly heard plenty about the first, given former congressman Mark Foley's internet intercourse with teenage boys.

rove_203ap.jpgWhat about the second? Well, the scale of spending required in even a mid-term US election is quite staggering to an outsider like me. I was astounded to hear that even Karl Rove - the Bush spinmeister - has personally raised $12 million by appearing at 92 Republican fund-raisers over the last few months. That is a record for a mere White House staffer and surely confirms him as among the most celebrated political strategists in US history.

Yet even his contribution is dwarfed by that of his boss. President Bush has managed to rack up $185.7 million at 77 such events. You wonder how they've found time to govern the country. However unlike in past elections, this time the Democrats aren't too far behind. Indeed according to the very useful website Open Secrets, which tracks such things, the two parties are almost neck and neck with around half a billion dollars each in the kitty for this election.

That may sound like good news for the Democrats - and it is - but whatever problems the Republicans are having with sex, never underestimate the "incumbent factor" with money. In other words, it costs a lot more to win a seat than it costs to keep it!

An unwholesome start

How bad can it get? For the Republicans, could the first day of the mid-term election campaign really have been any worse? Well perhaps if they were caught sending sexually explicit emails to underage children and then trying cover it up. Whoops... That is what former congressman Mark Foley and his party's leadership are actually accused of.

markfoley_ap203.jpgWhen confronted with the unwholesome internet messages Mr Foley had sent to teenagers, the disgraced representative resigned and checked himself into the current refuge of choice for scandal-struck politicians - the alcohol rehabilitation center.

The big political question - as with any major scandal - is who will have to resign next to make it all go away? One possible GOP lightning rod is the House speaker, Dennis Hastert. It is he who seems to have been alerted to Mr Foley's peculiar behaviour some months earlier, failed to act on it, then denied he knew about it, then admitted he did but lamely defended his inaction. In the words of a stinging editorial from Washington Times this morning, "Mr Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party, and he cannot preside over the necessary coming investigation…. that must examine his own inept performance." Not exactly a vote of confidence from a conservative Republican paper.

Even more alarming for Republicans is the possibility of more e-mail revelations . This was hinted at last night by ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross, who broke the original Foley-gate story. He said that he'd been contacted by a large number of other "pages" - the teenagers who help out in Congress - with further allegations against other members.

Much of it will turn out to be uncorroborated 'noise', but there's no question the whole of Washington is churning around the clock with rumours and anxieties about where - and who - this sleazy scandal will strike next. Perhaps day two could turn out even worse than day one after all.

About James Westhead

I've been based in Washington, reporting on the US for the BBC, since November 2005. I'm the late reporter here in the bureau, so I'm responsible for overnight coverage on BBC World Service radio, World TV, and the UK TV and radio morning programmes.

My previous role was in London, where I was the BBC's education and family correspondent for the One & Six O'Clock News programmes. Before that, I specialised as a health correspondent, working first for BBC regional TV in London and then for BBC News 24 when it launched in 1997.

I started my broadcasting career as a reporter with BBC Radio Kent in 1990.

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