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The Reporters: US mid-terms

All entries by this reporter: Jamie Coomarasamy

Macaca moment

There was frustration with Iraq and concern about corruption - but you could argue that the real clincher for the Democrats, in the Senate at least, was the presence of mind of a young American of Indian descent.

allen_body_ap.jpgWhen Virginia’s (now outgoing) Republican Senator George Allen turned his gaze towards 20-year-old S R Siddarth - a “tracker”, filming the Allen campaign for his Democratic rival, Jim Webb - and referred to him as “macaca”, a type of monkey, it turned the campaign on its head.

The footage of the incident became a YouTube phenomenon and Senator Allen was accused - not for the first time - of casual racism.

He may have been able to shrug it off, were it not for his status as a potential presidential candidate and the awkward way he handled the later revelations of his Jewish heritage.

In a few short weeks, the senator went from being a shoo-in to getting booted out of office.

For their part, the Allen camp tried to portray their opponent Jim Webb as a sexist; using comments he’d made about women when he was in the Navy and passages from his novels as evidence. But it didn’t work.

A majority of Virginia’s women voters supported Jim Webb. And so - crucially, as it turned out - did a majority of independents. Six years ago, they’d largely swung towards George Allen.

What role the macaca moment played in all of this is hard to judge, but it was a reminder that race is still a politically volatile issue here. And - in the contest which finally deprived the Republicans of their Senate majority - it may have even been a decisive one.

A gloomy morning

It's a pretty wet and gloomy morning here in northern Virginia - rainy, overcast, and pretty depressing for the folks here. And it's depressing because they voted in record numbers (for mid-term elections) here, but they still don't know who their senator will be.

George Allen, pictured with his wifeWhen George Allen, the incumbent here, got up to speak last night, some expected him to concede - he's a few thousand down in the polls - but he vowed to fight on. So if there is less than one percent between Allen and the Democratic challenger Jim Webb when all the votes are counted, we could face recounts, litigation, and possibly a long, drawn-out contest.

George Allen - once considered a presidential hopeful for 2008 - could yet decide it's not worth the challenge, but the matter could drag on for several weeks yet.

Abortion battle

While the focus on Iraq suggests that national issues will have more of an impact than usual on what are essentially local elections, in South Dakota, a vote on a local law could have a nationwide impact.

Among a rather daunting list of 11 ballot initiatives being put to voters there is a challenge to the state's tough new abortion law. The law, which permits abortions only if the mother's life is in danger, makes even quite a few opponents of abortion feel uncomfortable, but it has become the focus of a lot of pre-election discussion on Christian radio stations.

unruh_ap203b.jpgAs you cross the state's rolling plains, it is hard to miss the light blue signs in support of the legislation - part of a very energised and well-funded campaign that's being run from a huge warehouse near Sioux Falls airport.

The building is piled high with literature, DVDs and other family-friendly paraphernalia - from baby milk bottles to dolls - bearing the "vote yes" slogan.

Rushing from interview to interview (we were allocated eight minutes) is the head of the campaign, Leslee Unruh. She had an abortion herself 29 years ago - and has regretted it ever since, she says.

She couches her fight in the language of feminism and deliberately steers clear of the shocking pictures of aborted foetuses traditionally used by pro-life groups. South Dakota's law may be more extreme than most, but the aim of the campaign is to appeal to moderates.

Will it work? Well, the campaign to overturn the abortion ban has an advantage in the opinion polls, but it has rather more modest headquarters and rather more modestly-sized yard signs.

Still, as Election Day approaches, the "vote no" volunteers are bashing the phones with plenty of enthusiasm and everyone agrees that there's a lot at stake.

If the law is approved, several other states are likely to follow South Dakota's lead and challenge the Roe v Wade ruling which forms the federal basis for US abortion rights.

The buzz in Montana

All you American politicians looking for the right hair, the right suit, the right teeth, forget your fancy Washington image consultants and pay a visit to Bill Graves. He's the barber of Jon Tester - the Democrat trying to dislodge three-term Montana Senator Conrad Burns, one of the most vulnerable Republicans this year, thanks - in large part - to his rather-too-close financial relationship with the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

barber203.jpgPolitical ads feature Tester - a state senator and farmer - getting his distinctive flat-top hair cut at the Riverview barber shop in the northern town of Great Falls. When I went to meet the man behind the most famous follicle formation in Montana politics, Bill Graves was full of the joys of election season. He apologised for not having tea and crumpets at the ready, offered to give me and my long-haired producer, Michaela, buzz cuts (we both politely refused) and then reflected on the fact that people were no longer asking for flat-tops - but for "Testers". How about that for mutual advertising?

As the tag line - or buzz line - of the advert makes clear, the cut is all about showing that Jon Tester is someone who "looks like Montana". That's a pretty important quality in a state where you forget your roots at your peril. In a way, the Democrats' most damning accusation against Burns is not that he accepted money (which he later gave back) from a dodgy character, but that this proved he had "gone Washington" - and forgotten the good folk of Montana.

The charge has the potential to undo decades of good work on the authenticity front for Conrad Burns. Although he was born in Missouri, Senator Burns was a cattle auctioneer in Montana and the first general manager of the Billings rodeo, 39 years ago. He was at this year's rodeo at the weekend, presenting an award for rodeo ethics. He got a pretty good cheer from the crowd. No questions here about his ethics - or, indeed, about his Montana credentials.

But there were at the candidates' debate in Great Falls the night before. The senator had a response. He'd travelled back to Montana so much, he said, that Northwest airlines had recently awarded him his 2,000,000th air mile. Oh - and he'd worn out the seat of his trousers (jeans, I'm sure) on those planes.

So, people of Montana: worn-out jeans or a flat-top? The choice is yours.

Suckers in Virginia

A friend of mine who first covered Virginia politics more years ago than he'd care to remember refers to six-term Congressman Tom Davis as a "walking political encyclopaedia". But when I hooked up with him at the weekend, he was more like a walking lollipop-and-dog-biscuit distributor.

tomdavis_203cbs.jpgHe - or at least, his minions - had bags of both as he toured the Fairfax Fall festival, one of those made-for-campaign-season local fairs where candidates shake so many hands that you half expect the less experienced ones to begin giving the dog biscuits to the children and the lollipops (or "suckers", as they're known in these parts) to the… well, you get the point.

Thankfully, Congressman Davis stuck to the "four legs cookie, two legs lolly" rule, as you'd expect from a seasoned campaigner who successfully ran the Republicans' House election effort in 2000 and 2002. That experience has made him very sensitive to the national mood - and he knows the current one isn't good for his party.

Although his Northern Virginia district hasn't made it onto the growing "endangered" list, he predicts that the Republicans could lose as many as 30 House seats next month - double the number the Democrats need to get a majority.

Yes, he reminds you that at this point six years ago, the New York Times was (incorrectly) predicting a Democratic congressional victory, but he also acknowledges that an unpopular president and an unpopular war have made the atmosphere particularly "ugly" for Republicans this time around.

"I'm not a pessimist," he says, "I'm a realist."

There's a lot of realism in Republican circles these days. Fred Barnes - executive editor of that publication at the intellectual heart of conservatism, The Weekly Standard - predicts a "GOP debacle" in his latest article.

Scaremongering to get out the vote or genuine despair? The latter, I'd say. And while there's still hopeful Republican talk of an "October Surprise" - that semi-mythical, election-changing event - at this point, it would be a pretty big surprise if the Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives.

Whose votes count?

A shocking statistic from the latest Pew/AP mid-term poll. Only 30% of African-Americans think that their votes will be counted correctly - down from 47% at the last election.

chad_203ap.jpgLingering doubts about how votes were tallied in Ohio in 2004 and in Florida in 2000 seem to have been compounded by recent academic studies, questioning the security of some of the electronic voting machines being used next month.

A call to arms?

If the main consequence of the Foley furore is to drain the energy from the Republicans' socially conservative Republican base and increase the number of what the influential conservative strategist, Paul Weyrich, has called "embarrassed Republicans", the party may be casting around for other issues to get the voters to the polls.

protestors.jpgCould illegal immigration play that role? It was about eighteen months ago that a man called Tim Donnelly predicted it would - as we stood together on Arizona's border with Mexico. He is - or, at least, was a "minuteman" one of those private citizens (dubbed "vigilantes" by President Bush, much to their anger), who decided to take border protection into their own hands.

He was convinced that the swelling numbers of illegal immigrants would swell the ranks of Republican voters this November. I remember his parting words. "Immigration", he said in a confident tone, "will be the next abortion." Idle talk - or reality?

Judging from a few recent trips to different states, the issue is resonating far more loudly across the country, than the amount of national media coverage being given to it would suggest. By derailing the president's call for a comprehensive immigration bill - and, instead, pushing through new border fence legislation - House Republicans essentially won the pre-election argument. But will that be enough for them to win the election?

About Jamie Coomarasamy

I have a degree in modern languages (Russian and French) from Trinity Hall, Cambridge and I began my BBC career as a locally hired fixer/producer in Moscow in 1991 (just after the August coup).

I stayed in Moscow until January 1994, covering the events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union - mainly for the BBC, but also as a freelancer producer/reporter. I worked in the World Service TV newsroom in London for much of 1994, before being sent back to Moscow as staff producer.

I spent a further three years there, producing and reporting - covering events such as the first war in Chechnya and President Yeltsin's dramatic re-election campaign in 1996. From the end of 1997 to the middle of 1999 I was the BBC's Warsaw correspondent, covering central Europe.

I then worked for three months as a London-based reporter on the Today programme, before being posted to Paris as a BBC correspondent there. I spent four years in France - covering events such as the long-running row between the UK and France over the Sangatte refugee camp and the 2002 presidential election, which saw the far right leader Jean Marie le Pen make it to the run off with President Chirac.

I then worked as a reporter on Newsnight, before moving to London to be Europe reporter for BBC World's The World Today in 2003. I was sent to cover the last few weeks of the 2004 US Presidential campaign and - since January 2005 - I've been Washington correspondent for BBC World Service radio; reporting on everything from presidential and congressional politics, to space shuttle launches and Oscar ceremonies.

I'm married with two children.

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