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The Reporters: US mid-terms

All entries by this reporter: Claire Bolderson

Campaigning to the last

I just got the latest press release from Congresswoman Deborah Pryce’s office telling me where the Ohio Republican’s going to be today, still campaigning right up to the very last minute.

That’s been one of the features of this election. Incumbents who’ve barely had to raise a smile let alone millions in campaign funds in years have been out doing things the old fashioned way, shaking hands, kissing babies, searching for those last elusive votes that could make all the difference.

Congresswoman Deborah PryceDeborah Pryce (number four in the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives) is more used to making guest appearances at events held by less secure members. But this year, her own race is so tight that she’s been working her district hard. She even embarked on a bus tour late last week. I spent the best part of a day trying to track it down. She wasn’t at the bowling alley or the hot dog restaurant on the schedule her office sent out. The owners in both cases were a little bemused, they’d heard she might be dropping by, but it was at Tommy’s Pizza that things descended into farce.

Picture a tiny pizza restaurant, a BBC reporter and producer and twelve large German MPs. They too were trying to see the Congresswoman campaign. I’m not sure they ever did. I caught a glimpse of her bus go sailing past the window so jumped in the car in hot pursuit, her press secretary on the cell phone shouting instructions “turn left, turn right” until we arrived at the rally she was going to address.

Finally we got the interview and the sound we wanted. I still wonder what happened to the Germans.

Bad ads: What's the point?

OK, so I’m Brit - we don’t have election advertising the way you do here. But can anyone tell me the point of all those endless 30- and 60-second commercials on television?

There seem to be more than ever this year.

callme203.jpgI ask only because I’ve yet to meet anyone who has actually been well informed by what they have seen flash up on the screen.

If it’s a negative message - as the vast majority look like - it’s usually delivered in deep, serious and hurried tones suggesting impending doom if you don’t vote the right way.

The rare positive ones are bathed in a warm glow, usually include several shots of the candidate's family and have a syrupy voice-over designed I expect to make us all feel good about ourselves - and about them.

And for what purpose? I met a woman the other day who parroted back at me some of the outrageous allegations she had picked up from one particularly insulting TV ad - except she applied it all to the wrong candidate. She was so sure of her facts yet utterly confused.

Ask most people what they are thinking about the election and almost immediately they’ll start talking about the negative ads and how much they hate them.

“If you watched all the ads, you wouldn’t vote for any of them,” was the verdict of a waiter I met in Cincinnati the other day.

So here’s my question for any of you wavering voters out there. Have you ever seen an election TV spot that (a) you felt was really informative and (b) changed your mind about your vote?

Today's man in Tennessee?

It was great to see Congressman Harold Ford in action at the last debate of the campaign in Nashville. He's the young black Democratic Party candidate for the Senate in Tennessee, and he could well win.

ford_ap203b.jpgFord was relaxed on stage, at times a little cocky perhaps. He managed to get in a few jabs at his opponent Bob Corker, but what was more impressive was the way he finessed his message.

He's selling himself as a conservative on social issues. He's anti-gay marriage and anti-gun control, for example, and he talks passionately about his Christianity. And somehow he manages it wrap it all up in a theme that will appeal to disillusioned Republicans as well as Democrats - the need for change in Washington.

Afterwards, both candidates came into the media room. Everyone descended on Bob Corker because he was first to arrive, but attention quickly shifted to Harold Ford when he came in.

He's definitely today's man, quite charismatic, fast on his feet with questions and never deviating from what by now must be a carefully honed mental script.

I couldn't help wondering, though, what liberal Democrats think about him. At one point in the debate he referred to his support for President Bush's law on military commissions to try terror suspects, acknowledging that some people weren't happy with that.

The woman next to me, a supporter, said loudly and angrily "too right". She'll vote for him, though, because he could help deliver the Senate into Democratic Party hands.

Republicans: Not dead yet

Reading some of the warnings of impending Republican meltdown next week - coming from both sides I hasten to add - you’d think the party’s core supporters had vanished off the face of the earth.

rove2005_203ap2.jpgWell, if rural Tennessee is anything to go by, they haven’t - and contrary to Karl Rove’s greatest fears, many of them will be turning out to vote. People like Janice Bowling, who has stood as a Republican candidate in the past and was busy persuading people to support the Republican candidate for the Senate at a big barbeque competition in Lynchburg.

As far as she, and many others I met there are concerned, the Republican party still stands for what they believe in: low taxes, no gay marriage, no abortion and above all belief in God.

As for the war in Iraq, they’re certainly not happy about it, but they don’t blame the Republicans. As one woman told me, it might not be going well, “but that’s to be expected.”

And the scandals amongst Republicans in Congress? It just doesn’t seem to be an issue. In the smaller towns and the countryside, Republicans are more concerned with the character and experience of the local candidates.

Democrats, undecideds and some moderate Republicans may see this election as a verdict on the national leadership of the past five-and-a-half years, but the committed Republicans I met in rural Tennessee do not.

All bets are off

I’m about to set off to cover my seventh US election campaign and right now I wouldn’t put any money on predicting the outcome. I made that mistake (along with the entire BBC Washington bureau I might add) at my first election - in 1994.

newt_ap203b.jpgWe held an office sweepstake but not one of us predicted the Republican Revolution, as it became known. The Democratic Party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, led his troops to Capitol Hill on a wave of protest votes against incumbents.

That was dubbed the year of the “Angry White Man”. I rather suspect that this time around as I travel through Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio I might come across him again.

Angry this time with a Republican-dominated Congress mired in scandal, but also worried about still being at war in Iraq, and anxious about the economic and physical security of his kids.

That’s not to say I’m expecting the Democrats to storm back in. One of the questions I intend to ask of them on my trip: “What are you offering the American people as an alternative?”

Of course, the answer will vary from race to race, and the polling evidence suggests the Democratic Party doing well in a number of places. But it’s a finely divided electorate at a time of tremendous national insecurity, and with less than two weeks to go, I for one am not placing any bets.

About Claire Bolderson

I present the World Tonight on Radio 4, as well as the BBC World Service programme Newshour.

I covered my first US election in 1994, when I was a BBC Washington correspondent, and I've reported on every election since. I also makes regular visits to the US for other stories, and have also reported from Africa and South East Asia. My recent assignments in Europe included coverage of the Italian and the German general elections.

I began my broadcasting career in Indonesia, where I reported for the BBC and the Financial Times for two and a half years, spending time also in Singapore, Malaysia and Burma. I came to the BBC via the World Service newsroom after taking a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford.

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