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Friday 8th August 2003

The Race For The White House

Our reporter has been on the road investigating public opinion in the aftermath of the war in Iraq and how it's affecting the presidential campaign.

As Gordon Corera writes, the conflict has prompted some soul-searching questions amongst Democrats nationwide.

It may seem like early days, but the Democratic candidates for President are already treading the well-worn path around the small towns of New Hampshire and the farms of Iowa. At times nearly bumping into each other, they make their pitch to small groups gathered in diners and local parks who take notes as they compare the nine Democrats who think they have what it takes to beat President Bush come next November.

Without the terrorist attacks and the war on Iraq, George Bush might well have been in deep trouble. Two and a half million jobs have been lost since he came into office and he could be running for re-election with the worst record on employment since Herbert Hoover more than seventy years ago. Even in relatively affluent New Hampshire, everyone seems to know someone who has lost their job and complaints about rising health costs are commonplace.

Some candidates, like John Edwards, the fresh-faced North Carolina Senator, might have done much better in a parallel universe in which the terrorist attacks and Iraq had never happened. With his southern populism and working class roots he’s holding town hall forums to hear voters concerns.

But September 11th has transformed the template of what a President should be. A candidate now needs to make Americans feel safe and be a credible Commander-in-Chief. The swing voters in past elections – the so-called ‘soccer moms’ - have now morphed into ‘security moms’ who worry about safety and whether enough has been done to protect the country.

The war remains an unpredictable factor. When President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1st, nearly two thirds of Americans thought the military effort in Iraq was going very well. But as the toll of casualties grows by the day, that’s now down to less than one in four.

However it’s not going to be as easy as you might expect for the Democrats to capitalise on this.

A candidate like John Kerry – a towering Vietnam veteran – would seem well placed but, like many other Democrats, he voted for the war and almost visibly squirms as he tries to carefully adjust his position to appeal to the anti-war voters but without looking unpatriotic and opening himself up to charges of hypocrisy. And while many Americans are worried about how things are going in Iraq, that’s not the same as being anti-war.

This means that while former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s anti-war message might go down well with that one third who always opposed the war, it may alienate the other two thirds of the country who believe it was justified. At Dean meetings in Iowa, his supporters were passionate and articulate but not necessarily representative. So Dean’s carefully calibrated strategy could help him win the nomination but also lead him to disaster in a face-off with Bush who’ll use national security to try to pummel any anti-war Democrat.

The Dean issue is about much more than the man himself – it's about what you have to do to win elections. The 1990s model (call it the Clinton Plan) said you had to stake out the centre ground to win independents and swing voters. But some on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum have begun to argue that in the era of low turnout elections, its more important to get your activists to the polls and that this was the crucial factor in both the 2000 Presidential election and 2002 mid terms.

If that’s the case, then Dean is definitely the man as he taps into a rich vein of anti-Bush and anti-war feeling around the country. If it isn’t, then Dean may repeat past Democratic performances of being on the wrong side of a landslide.

Meanwhile President Bush is already turning up the heat on the money front. He broke all records in 2000 with his fund-raising and he’s going to go even further this time. But behind the Bush’s campaign bravado lies a lurking fear. The fear is of a repeat performance of 1992 when his father won a war in Iraq but lost an election because he failed to pay enough attention to the economy and domestic issues.

Despite September 11th, America remains the evenly divided nation that went to the polls in 2000, and if the Democrats can find the right candidate and get their message across, this election could be as close as the last one.

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