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Nervous final days

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 31 Oct 08, 11:53 PM GMT

Highland, Indiana: Have you ever spoken to someone trying to suppress excitement? They tend to struggle. They do their best to deny it but it seeps through. And so it is with Barack Obama's inner circle. His campaign manager David Plouffe said today: "We're happy to be where we are now." At one piece of polling news he used the word "thrilled".

Barack Obama walks with his daughter Sasha in Chicago at Halloween

One sign of that optimism: they're going to spend some money this weekend on TV ads in of all places Arizona - John McCain's home state. This may be a bit of mischief, tweaking your opponent's tail but there is not much room for mischief four days from polling. The Obama team says even in Arizona they see the race tightening in their favour.

Another reason for their confidence is early voting. They reckon that come 4th November, 40% of Americans will have voted early. What the Obama analysts are seeing is a high number of first-time voters and independents going to the polls and they are hopeful that they will back Obama. In the past the Republicans have done better at early voting. Not this time. In many states its registered Democrats who have voted early. That enthusiasm encourages the campaign. They are noticing, too, that African Americans are voting in large numbers. Hispanics too. That, in their view, is one of the stories of the election: the number of Hispanics breaking for Obama.

This final weekend is all about organisation. Barack Obama will not announce any new themes. His job now is to inspire, to get the vote out. Across the country the Democrats say they will have over a million volunteers active. They are more confident of their polling data than in the past. They are able to target those who have not voted and get them to the polling stations. The Democrats' organisation is far superior to four years ago. One insider told me they had learnt from the Republicans and are determined not to be out-organised.

Chicago skyline

Barack Obama always counsels against compaceny. "Power never concedes," he likes to say.

The Obama team knows that John McCain's aides are saying the "race is tightening". They don't see it. There are some anxieties about Ohio and they believe Florida will, once again, be tight. They know, too, that there are undecideds out there. That is why the campaign was so delighted that 33 million Americans watched Obama's slick commercial. One TV executive said it was simply "stunning" that so many people had sat through a political ad.

So in these final days we sense the expectation in the Obama camp but on display, too, are the nerves of the front-runner. They want the election now rather than on Tuesday. So in the last frenetic push Barack Obama will swing through Nevada and Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Ohio and North Carolinia before heading back to Chicago.

42 and 44?

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 30 Oct 08, 10:16 PM GMT

Orlando, Florida: It was approaching the midnight hour when the police outriders, their lights flashing blue and red, passed under an American flag and the patient Orlando crowd broke into applause.

clintonobama203x152_getty.jpgThe announcer called for a welcome for the 42nd President of the United States and for the 44th - yet to be chosen. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama emerged together. They are both consumate workers of a rope line and they plunged into the crowd as if fearful they might be outdone by the other.

Whether you like them or not they are among the best communicators of the modern era; politicians who can move a crowd.

As they were walked towards the lecturn there was a lot of touching, as is common in a new relationship. All evening they were attentive to each other. An arm across a shoulder, a little touch on the arm, a full embrace.

A few months ago there was bad blood. The Obama team believed Bill Clinton had tried to pigeon-hole him as a black politician. But that was then when Hillary still hoped to claim the crown.

Barack Obama is a natural toucher. An arm around Mahmoud Abbas. An arm around Sarkozy. The arm is outstrectched because he is consensus man who believes that his warmth, his magic can cross any divide. (The only time I have seen him recoil was when he was leaving the Elysee and Sarkozy tried to kiss him goodbye. As Sarkozy stood on his toes Obama turned his head.) But last night touching, embracing was in.

Bill Clinton was neither coy nor coded. Right from the start he was endorsing the younger man: "Hello Orlando. America is ready for a new president. This new president," he said pointing at Obama, who by now was seated on a stool. Clinton's voice was slightly strained but he made the point that Obama's crowds were the future. Look around, he said, the people here are highly diverse. He acknowledged "there were a few old grey haired guys like me". But he went on to say that this type of crowd
was America's future.

Clinton's basic point was that the basic income of many people had fallen. The system was not working. A country needed a strong middle class. It is the same populist theme that lies at the heart of Obama's message.

It was an evening when compliments were splashing around but Bill Clinton said one of the arguments for Obama was the way he had run his campaign. He doubted whether in history there had been a campaign that had involved so many people either as volunteers or online or collecting money.

When he was done, Obama embraced him and whispered in his ear: "Couldn't have done better, thank you." Clinton sat slightly behind Obama as he delivered his "closing arguments" speech. It was a chance for one of the great orators to study the new contender. Afterwards, with just a note of awe, Clinton said: "He didn't always rely on the auto-prompt."

Now, in his time, neither did Clinton, but these are the last bone-weary days of a campaign when mistakes can come. Bill Clinton noticed that Obama "was tired when he arrived but the crowd lifted him up". Clinton understood this so well. Down or exhausted he could always draw energy from a crowd.

Afterwards came the full embrace, the hug, their arms lingering around each other. The importance for Obama was that in places like Ohio, Florida (the so-called i-4 corridor) and Pennsylvania there are still mainly white working class voters who went for Hillary but may not yet support Barack. The Obama team are nervous about them and that was Bill's value to them.

Before the rally most of the TV networks had run the 30-minute Obama infomercial. You could see the money on the screen - the music, the slow dissolves, the picture quality. When it came to Barack Obama standing up and moving to the front of the desk I felt I was in the Oval office already. This was the president speaking or so it seemed. I wondered what the voters made of it. Did they see a leader who would look comfortable in the Oval Office or did they pause and say: "Hang on we haven't voted for him yet."

Then the black-and-white images followed. There is often a nostalgic quality to them. The picture of Obama going up the staircase reminded me of JFK. The Obama team, it seems to me, take nothing for granted. They are the consummate campaigners. They are five days from touch down and ahead in the polls but they have Bill Clinton at a midnight rally, Al Gore popping up in Florida, the scene of his nightmare, a 30 minute ad. They are the team ahead and are showing all the nerves of the front-runner.

The songs - and the candidate - remain the same

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 29 Oct 08, 07:31 PM GMT

Raleigh, North Carolina: Nothing in high-stakes modern American politics is left to chance.

At Barack Obama's rallies there is a music playlist. It is played at every rally. No local favourites sneak in. Just a mixture of old and new.

There is "The Adventure" by Angels and Airwaves, "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang and "Give the People What They Want" by the O'Jays.

I am reliably informed by Rob Magee, my cameraman, that the Obama playlist consists of 21 songs - all soon to be uploaded onto his iPod.

Two songs, however, are used to define the campaign. One is the arrival anthem, that plays Barack Obama onto the stage. It is U2's 'City of Blinding Lights' - with its line "oh you look so beautiful tonight".

And after his speech, when he lifts the bottle of water to his lips, in comes the heavy beat and then Stevie Wonder's scream in "Signed, Sealed, Delivered".

In the arena, a soundman stands at his console and fades in the music, much as if this was a rock show. And in a way it is. The timing is usually immaculate.

Four years ago, John Kerry also had a playlist. His campaign song was "No Surrender" by Bruce Springsteen.

But there was a difference. Mr Kerry lined up rock stars to appear with him: Springsteen, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Bon Jovi.

Mr Obama does not need the band. He is the star. He does not need Hollywood stardust.

I can remember a whisper going around the crowd in Philadelphia: "Will Smith is coming". He did not appear and no-one cared.

The crowds are pumping for Obama, even before he arrives on stage.

(I recall a lunchtime rally in Madison, Wisconsin with Bruce Springsteen and John Kerry in 2004. As soon as Springsteen had done his fifteen minutes, the crowds drifted back to their offices. I always thought Mr Kerry should have done a deal with the crowd: "Hang with me for a few minutes and you'll get Springsteen as your reward.")

The point about the Obama playlist is that it reflects the campaign. I have covered a number of these elections and I have never seen such a disciplined, tightly controlled organisation.

There are no leaks, no raised voices. I am sure there are arguments between David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs, but they do not show.

His critics may say he has never run anything, never accomplished anything, but his campaign management has been impressive.

So Barack Obama has begun what he calls his closing arguments. In these final days he charts his long, improbable journey from the cold of Maine to the sunshine of California.

There is much detail about tax and healthcare, but when all is stripped away the Obama message comes down to this: the country is on the wrong track and its time for change.

The riff line of his campaign is "change". And the crowd cry back: "Yes We Can".

Most of us desire change. Most of us dream of a better job, or life or relationship. We have all at one time stood on the brink of reinvention.

Change is beguiling when times are rough. And in that sense Barack Obama is a lucky politician.

America is less sure of itself and where it is heading than it has been for as long as I can remember.

What is wrapped inside the slogan of "change" is sometimes hard to pin down but it has served him well.

As the election has moved closer, so another theme has emerged - his populist attack on trickle-down economics.

He speaks of the "tired old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone".

He wants to grow the economy from the bottom up.

What will this mean in practice? I think an Obama administration will invest heavily in alternative energy programmes and infrastructure and hope that will be an engine-room for jobs.

There is a reflective element to Mr Obama's closing arguments. He thinks America has been living through a period of "profound irresponsibility" in the way its government and people have run up debt.

What he thinks has been lost in the past eight years is "a common sense of purpose".

As so often in modern politics, the message is inseparable from the man.

I have watched him closely at rally after rally.

His playlist does not change - and neither does he.

He is unruffled, disciplined. His organisation is tightly-controlled. They do not like the unpredictable.

Through set-backs and controversies he has conducted his campaign with grace and intellect. He does not strike me as a needy politician.

He has been carried to this point on the wings of rhetoric... to a degree. He has several speeds to his speeches.

I saw him on a cold Sunday in Wilmington. He spoke without notes. He was on fire, lifting up the crowd, letting them fall gently and lifting them again.

He knew how to surf the emotions of a crowd better than any politician apart from, perhaps, Bill Clinton.

In Berlin before a crowd of 250,000 he checked himself. He rowed back. He did not want to be the preacher on the world stage. He wanted to appear statesmanlike, showing off his knowledge of history.

And as the election approaches, he sticks to the words on the autocue. There is no need to take a risk. This is a campaign on cruise control.

The other night in Pittsburgh I had a recurring thought.

The expectations. That I was not at a political rally. The audience were not voters. They were fans, urging their man on to victory.

And as he drew to a close his oratory took off. He could not control himself. The passion flowed. The crowd sensed it. They were on their feet. Not listening to the words.

They were lost in the roar.

When the event was over, some of the crowds lined the streets. The light was on the turn.

The bitter cold had edged down from the North. Many of the people in the crowd were African-American.

They cheered their man out of town. Time and again they have told me "this is our time". This is their victory parade. It is as if the whole weight of their history is being lifted. At last.

But such expectations! What a burden! But that - if the polls are right - lies ahead.

A Land of Hope

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 28 Oct 08, 01:05 AM GMT

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: As I bounce around America in the wake of Barack Obama it feels, at times, that I have been given a ringside seat at a giant shredder. Everywhere old certainties are being torn up.

First up, Alan Greenspan, the economics guru whose name only recently was whispered in awe. Now he's confessing: he was wrong to believe the financial industry could regulate itself.

Next up, the trickle-down believers who thought wealth would filter down to the poorest. It didn't. Wages are lower than they've been for a decade. There's not a trickle-down advocate left on the strip.

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Then there's the free market president explaining why the government should take a major share in the nation's top banks.

Ditched too is part of the Protestant work ethic that valued thrift along with hard work. The government and plenty of voters have gorged themselves on debt. Barack Obama today said: "We've been living through a period of profound irresponsibility."

Then there are the evangelists at the World Bank and IMF who told emerging economies that they should ape the American model. The advice is hastily being written out of the script.

America - the beacon on a hill. Some are junking that too. A woman in Philadelphia told me she now says she's a Canadian when she travels.

Then there are those K Street think tanks in Washington who believed that exporting democracy would transform the Middle East. You can scan the talk shows for them but they've long since left town.

There's a firesale going on for old beliefs. Everything one once held was true must go - or so it seems. Close an eye in this upside down world and Dick Cheney will soon be palling around with Fidel Castro.

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But one belief stands unshaken: American exceptionalism. Listen to Barack Obama today: "We still have the most talented and productive workers of any country on earth."
He has a frequent riff at his rallies: "We're Americans. Our destiny is not written for us.
We chose our destiny." I think it was at the Republican convention that I heard Laura Bush saying there are no people as generous as Americans. Sarah Palin believes America is a chosen land with a special destiny.

So no candidate can afford to be too negative. In the darkest times each candidate has to offer if not quite "morning in America" but "the best lies ahead". Its strikes me at the rallies what fun both Democrats and Republicans are having. They leave, bouyed up, comfortable that whatever the current problems all will be well.

Barack Obama said today: "What has been lost..is our sense of a common purpose." That may be, but at these political events American optimism prospers. It is perhaps why covering politics here is so enjoyable.

The Bin Laden Question

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 26 Oct 08, 03:19 AM GMT

strip.jpgIt seemed curious that one of Barack Obama's first campaign stops after returning from visiting his grandmother In Hawaii was the desert fantasy of Las Vegas. With its fountains and Venetian replicas it is disconnected from reality. Its purpose is to escape into a world of games, tables and machines.

(It turns out that it is fertile territory for the Democratic candidate. Some big hotel projects have been mothballed. And many of the casino workers have not seen their wages rise in real terms in years.)

Whilst here a question re-emerged that has been asked before. It, too, is part game yet an important truth lies behind it. Several times on the campaign trail the breeze has been shot with this question "if Osama Bin Laden had a vote, which candidate would he cast it for?"

Before revealing the conventional wisdom on this I want to wind back four years. I was at a rally in West Palm Beach at a John Kerry campaign event when my office called. Osama Bin Laden, a few days before polling, had issued a tape. It was clearly intended to influence the American election.

I walked across to see Mike McCurry who was a Kerry campaign adviser and a former Press Secretary to Bill Clinton. He knew nothing of the Bin Laden tape but immediately recognised its importance. As soon as John Kerry left the stage he sat in his black SUV and worked out a response. By the time he arrived at West Palm Beach airport he had his statement. He would not allow Osama Bin Laden to have any impact on the election. He dead-batted the whole issue.

obama.jpgBut as we enter the final days of this campaign the question is being asked again. What if a new tape emerges threatening fresh attacks? Might this not play in John McCain's favour? Would it not underline that Barack Obama is untested? Would it not make the McCain point that we live in dangerous times?

It brings us back to the hypothetical question. "If Osama Bin Laden had the vote, how would he use it?" Some people answer that he would surely vote for Obama because he believes in "soft power" before military force. But usually the conversation evolves along these lines. Osama Bin Laden would fear Barack Obama more because he will present
a different face to the world. With his diverse background he will be a new American. Barack Obama will be a poor recruiter for al-Qaeda. It's the Colin Powell point that "Obama would be a transformational president...it would electrify the world"

So might Osama Bin Laden then try to strengthen John McCain's hand? It's a thought but only from an idle campaign moment in a gaming city.

Determined to vote

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 23 Oct 08, 01:39 AM GMT

So the numbers chosing early voting are large. Early in the week in Broward County the figures were significantly up on four years ago. By now close to 200,000 people have voted. Some officials think that by election day 40% of voters in Florida will have been to the polling stations.

What this indicates to me is that American voters, this time around, are highly motivated. Turn-out should be up. The expectation in Florida is that 80% of registered voters will vote. It is hard to be certain who that benefits. But the Democrats have been more successful in registering new voters. It also means that a significant number of Americans are voting at a time Barack Obama is 8% ahead in the polls. For many the election is not on 4 November but now.

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But what about the "hanging chad" shadow? Quite a few Democrats still believe the 2000 election was stolen. They tell you that not every vote was counted. Sometimes - at an Obama rally - when an activist is explaining the law and how voters should not be deterred by polling officials there is a cry from the crowd "Not this time!"
The Democrats seem highly organised to contest any attempts to challenge registered voters.

The Republicans too are suspicious. I sat in today at a Republican meeting at a country club in Palm Beach. Sid Dinerstein, along with almost everyone there, believes that ACORN, a community-based organisation, is committing massive fraud. Several people there told me that Democrats were bribing voters were offers of food or signing up bogus people. They believe, too, there is a danger of the election being stolen.

So, once again, the lawyers are on hand in Florida. Yet today I felt again the pulse of this extraordinary campaign: a nation in crisis determined to vote.

The risk of expectation

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 21 Oct 08, 02:32 AM GMT

It was the children that caught my eye. The sheer number that were turning up for the Obama rally in North Carolina. Some carried big cartons of popcorn or foil-wrapped dogs, seeping with ketchup as if arriving for a movie or a ballgame.

I had never seen so many children at a rally. At first I thought it was because it was a Sunday and baby-sitters were scarce. After a few conversations I realised something else was happening. Many in the crowd were history-seekers. Their children had been brought along so that when they were older they would be told: "You went to an Obama rally." The parents were laying something down for the future.

obama_291_ap.jpgProbably 70% of the audience was African-American although that wasn't reflected in the selected guests that filled the stage behind the candidate. (At all these rallies there is an element of stage management. I watched posters being handed out to those in the line of sight of the cameras with slogans like 'Army4Obama.' 'Military4Obama' and 'Veterans for Obama.)

One woman said she wanted her children to see the first African-American president. She, like many in the audience, was without doubt. When Barack Obama finally emerged the crowd erupted. It was not applause but a roar like one that greets a winning team or the full-throated cry of the fan.

When Obama said there had been some good news that morning there were a few screams. That was before he mentioned the name of Colin Powell. Many in the audience wore Obama tee-shirts with words like "hope" or "change" stamped on them. When he arrived thousands of cell-phones were raised as if in salute. All raised to capture a moment. To be able to say sometime in the future "I was there" and "I was part of history". And when he spoke many stayed standing. They were riding a victory tide.

And that is when I thought - what would happen on 4 November if he lost?

Disappointment is built into democracy but would this crowd or any of the vast numbers he is pulling in accept defeat? Some still feel betrayed after the election of 2000 when the Supreme Court gave the election to George W Bush over Al Gore. How do I know the hurt lingers? Because at the rallies, when Obama urges them not to be confused or bamboozled they respond: "Not this time."

The candidate faces a dilemma. He has to enthuse, to inspire, to work up - to get out the vote. What he cannot do is worry about the let-down if he loses. In Philadelphia just off Locust street a young woman, just turned 18, hinted to me that there would be an explosion of anger if Obama lost. No-one else has said it but when you feel the passion of the crowds it leaves you wondering.

It is one of the dangers of negative campaigning that if you win the disappointed feel "cheated". It is one reason that so many question whether some Republicans should be asking "who is a real American" or raising doubts about Obama's patriotism because if failure were to follow some in the Obama camp would feel they had been "mugged".

Barack Obama warns against expectations or complacency. "For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky..." he mentions two words "New Hampshire" where he was ahead in the primary but went on to lose. But his crowds sway and dance to the Obama play-list. For all the world it looks like a celebration has begun.

Colin Powell drops a grenade

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 19 Oct 08, 11:56 PM GMT

Fayetteville, North Carolina: Colin Powell's intervention did not surprise me. I knew that he thought America was on the wrong track. Last summer I was speaking to one of his closest freinds. He phoned Colin Powell while I was with him and the former secretary of state was fixing his roof at the time.

The message of the friend - a man who had also been in government - was that America was alienating the world by showing a harsh face. He went on: America was at its strongest when it was at its most generous. The country, he said, had to live up to its ideals.

Colin Powell has now echoed that. Barack Obama would be a transformational president and his election would electrify the world, he said.

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His endorsement may not influence many Republicans. He was often regarded as a "soft" member of the party. His words may, however, carry weight with swing voters and independents. In essence what he was saying was "You can trust Barack Obama as your commander-in-chief".

Listening to him as he left NBC I sensed a real distaste for the tone of the McCain campaign. He took on the talk radio circuit and the blogosphere directly. It troubled him that people were suggesting Barack Obama was a Muslim. He's not, he's a Christian, said the former secretary of state, but he also challenged the idea that it would be wrong if he were of another faith.

He also attacked what some Republicans have been asking "Who is a real American, who is not?". "We've got to stop this kind of nonsense," Colin Powell said.

Watching him today it was impossible not to wonder whether there was a slight element of "revenge" in his comments. He has never, as far as I know, laid the blame for the debacle at the United Nations when he held up a tube and said this was the evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons programme. It later was shown to be false.

When he left office he said he got on the Interstate heading south of Washington and never looked in his rear-view mirror. He seemed a rare man who could shed power and prominence easily. But, at the same time, he would have known that his long years of public service were stained by those moments at the United Nation. He would not have wanted to "get back" at John McCain personally but perhaps there was a lingering resentment with the Republicans.

Only Colin Powell knows that.

But this was a pitch today for a generational change, for a country that was more inclusive and more diverse.

I was in Fayetteville today in North Carolina where Barack Obama was speaking. As he spoke of some news "this morning" the crowd erupted. I even heard screams. For many in the audience this was a big moment. But the Obama team must also be aware of the huge expectations they are building up.

The enigma of Barack Obama

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 19 Oct 08, 04:54 AM GMT

Kansas City, Missouri: Most politicians I have covered betray something; a weakness; a hunger; a passion. We as journalists try to smoke out their demons or insecurities. Barack Obama reveals little.

I watched Barack Obama closely the morning after the final debate. He was in Londonderry, New Hampshire. We were bone-weary after four hours sleep. I was looking for signs of strain after the pressure of 90 minutes in the ring with John McCain. I half expected a slight deflation in the candidate after the high-octane of debating
before 63 million people.

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The rain was falling by the time he arrived. He was wearing a casual rain jacket and what I noticed was his walk. There was something jaunty about him. He wasn't cocky but he almost strolled to the stage. Not only had he debated the night before but he had attended a fund-raiser in New York before appearing in New Hampshire.

And that is part of his enigma. At these events he is accessible but unreadable. He shows no strain. He is the effortless politician. After 21 months of speeches and shaking the hands of strangers he seems unhurried and at ease. His pursuit of power does not mark him as it does other politicians.

I remember with President Clinton his need to win you over. At a press conference you had to wait until he looked at you and then you asked your question. You held his gaze and he locked on to you enabling you to ask maybe two or three further questions. You could feel his desire to be liked and admired.

I covered the Kerry campaign. With John Kerry you could sense the sheer effort to be a popular politician. I remember after a brief interview with him, the speed the smile dropped.The famous jaw set rigid as he walked away. Towards the end of the campaign I detected a weariness as he sought to sell himself as an ordinary American.

Gordon Brown, too, finds campaigning difficult. It is not him. The small talk, the easy aside. I have watched him sitting with a group of ordinary people, his arms resting on the table, his hands clasped in front of him. You can almost sense his desire for the event to be over and for him to get back to his papers and his advisers.
His long pursuit of power is never disguised.

Barack Obama is a natural. I remember a few years ago meeting him in Chicago with a few other journalists. In the ballroom, where we talked, he was already turning heads. Way before he ran for the presidency the hands were outstretched, waiting for him.
Back then he was curiously detached from all the attention. He listened to us, he looked down while we spoke. He was intellectually curious. He did not dominate the conversation.

As a candidate he is immensely disciplined. During the second town hall debate the candidates rested on stools between questions. The Obama team had worked out that their candidate looked at his best with one foot resting on the floor, the other on the rung of the stool. The pose breathed assurance, relaxation, a man totally at ease. Having chosen this position he never strayed from it. Just one small example of his attention to detail and his ability to deliver.

During the primaries Hillary Clinton and her team said he was "untested" but it often seemed to me that what they were hinting at was that there was something "unexplained" about him, precisely because he gives so little away. He is on stage every day. He speaks, gives interviews but as to what really drives this extraordinary politician we as watchers, voters cannot be sure.

Who to believe?

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 17 Oct 08, 08:22 AM GMT

LONDONDERRY, NEW HAMPSHIRE: All day, cable news has been asking 'who won the debate?' It eats up endless hours of airtime. It's a great question because there's no definitive answer. There was no knock-out blow, but circling Spin Alley in Long Island you pick up a few clues.

Barack Obama and John McCainDuring the first 45 minutes the Obama team was apparently edgy. And here's why.

McCain sharpened the distinction between himself and Barack Obama on tax and he had some good lines. He asked why at this time anyone would be thinking of raising taxes. Good blow.

He picked up that Barack Obama suggested "spreading the wealth around" to Joe the plumber. Good blow. Spreading the wealth around could sound like socialism.

Then McCain said the last president to raise taxes during a recession was Herbert Hoover and that ended with a depression. Another effective jab.

Certainly the McCain camp believed it was their best night of the debates and today John McCain re-worked the best lines of the debate on the campaign trail. His aides expect the polls to tighten over the next few days. Maybe.

In the latter half of the debate, Barack Obama did better. He was strong on health and his final statement was inspiring.

But here's a thought. Relatively few people weigh the facts. Many voters make up their minds on how they feel or how a candidate looks. A pollster once said to me, don't underestimate that people want to feel comfortable with the person in the White House. Every week the president is in their living rooms so likeability matters. And that was John McCain's dilemma. He needed to attack but the longer he went on the offensive, the more he risked alienating voters.

Barack Obama practised being at ease. When under attack he nearly always smiled. It seemed rather forced at times but that was the calculation that Obama would win if he appeared the nicer man.

Field with scarecrows and pumpkins for sale (photo taken by Ian Sherwood)

PS. On our way to the rally in Londonderry, we passed this field full of pumpkins in anticipation of Halloween.

The end of 'trickle-down'?

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 15 Oct 08, 04:22 PM GMT

DETROIT: I woke up this morning, staring at Canada. It's where I used to live and Detroit's high-rise hotels offer you a glimpse of a long, receding horizon.

Sunset in DetroitThe hotel itself is half-showroom. There seem to be cars in the lobby and black and white pictures of models with gleaming metallic fins. Looking at them now, these cars are bursting with optimism.

The present seems so different. We've stopped here en route to Hofstra university in Long Island for the third and final debate. We wanted to get a snapshot about the economy.

The television vox-pop is a curious animal. It is often little more than a visual punctuation. It is certainly unscientific but every so often it draws you into a fascinating conversation and that happened last night.

We stopped off at The Bar on Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, not far from the Ford plant.

The lighting was low inside. A place for a quiet reflective drink. We joined three men who had spent a lifetime in the auto industry, working for Ford. In their view, they had seen the best of times. Everyone, they said, feared the possible merger between General Motors and Chrysler. Job losses usually follow mergers.

The men were bitter about the economy. Norman Tomkowski said "most of the people you talk to think it sucks."

Another man looked into his beer and said "it's not good at all. People being laid off, losing their jobs. People can't afford to live anymore."

When they spoke of the election the economy trumped everything, but it's what they said about the conditions at the car plant that caught my attention. In their day, they had health insurance; they were compensated for inflation. There were other benefits. Most of them have been pruned back.

It connected to what I've heard elsewhere, that for millions of Americans the last few years have seen a cut in real income. Wages have not increased and many working Americans feel less off. Benefits have been squeezed.

It nags away at basic beliefs, that hard work can lift you up. It challenges the much quoted belief in a "trickle-down" theory, that if those at the top are pulling in the high salaries and bonuses, the wealth trickles down. In conversation after conversation, I find people doubting this and it feeds into the mood that America is on the wrong track.

We're off to the airport and the debate in New York. Our brief encounter in Detroit underlines the difficulty for John McCain - how to answer this feeling that America is heading in the wrong direction.

Some people are reminding the voters that in 1980 Ronald Reagan was behind in the polls with just a few weeks to run but won by a landslide. He looked into the camera, slightly tilted his head, and asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The question hit the spot but it's a question John McCain can't ask.

Low blows

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 14 Oct 08, 04:08 PM GMT

TOLEDO, OHIO: Barack Obama is preparing in a hotel up the road for tomorrow's debate.

Moving around the country involves a series of casual encounters. We're sitting having breakfast and ZZ Top are here.

Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Philadelphia (image Ian Sherwood)What's curious is that none of these "casual" conversations ever touch on the candidates' economic plans. There's a reason for that. The financial crisis is moving so fast that it's leaving the candidates behind. Almost nothing they say now may have any relevance come January.

So no-one on the road gets into the detail of McCain's or Obama's plans. What they do talk about are the "low blows" of the campaign.

In Pennsylvania at the weekend, I was at two events with Barack Obama. When he mentioned John McCain's name, the crowd booed. It was instant, immediate. It seemed to me the "boo" of a ball game, tinged with a little irony. I did not detect any hatred.

Obama immediately told the crowd that he respected John McCain's service to his country but that he disagreed on the economy and on other issues. He added that we can disagree and still respect each other.

Last week at a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio, the feelings were different. Many of the people there detested Barack Obama. "Detest" is a strong word, but I felt their dislike of the Illinois senator was visceral. Nearly everyone I spoke to doubted his patriotism.

One conversation went like this: "Do you think Barack Obama is a patriotic American?" "No. No, nothing in his background indicates that." The man went on: "I think he's got too much Marxism and black power in his background."

The man, on camera, added a bit of analysis; he thought Obama was angry because he had some white blood in him.

Another woman told me: "I just believe he is not an American. I just think he's angry."

A younger woman had a poster with a picture of Adolf Hitler on it. Hitler's face had been replaced with that of Obama. We did not use this in our coverage because we did not think it was in any way typical of the Republican crowds. Yet the people around her did not challenge her.

An older man was explicit in that he thought "race" was an issue. But what caught my attention was "patriotism".

In our conversations, many of which were on camera, I struggled to find someone who felt Barack Obama was "patriotic".

I tried to nail down what lay behind this. Many people were disturbed by Obama's associations with the radical William Ayers and with his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright.

Yet I felt the concerns ran deeper than that. It was the fears of "otherness". Many of those we spoke to just felt he was not like them, he did not share their values. They spoke about lapel badges, saluting the flag and, above all, about the military. For some, being patriotic was about supporting the military.

I asked a question as to whether it was "patriotic" to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Some agreed - reluctantly, I thought.

These may be superficial encounters but the "boos" in Pennsylvania seemed different to the comments in Ohio.

Rallying the crowd

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 13 Oct 08, 08:53 AM GMT

PHILADELPHIA AND SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA: A weekend in Pennsylvania. You can sense the optmism of the Democrats. Much as they try, they can't disguise it. Some are even questioning whether Pennsylvania is still a battleground state.

Barack Obama's team relish highlighting the in-fighting in the McCain camp over strategy.

In his speeches, Barack Obama never presumes victory but at his rallies the warm-up speeches are all focused on turnout. Registration has been a success. In recent weeks, the Democrats claim to have registered 200,000 voters.

Bill Clinton addresses the rally, image by Ian Sherwood

On Saturday at Locust street in Philadelphia, the large crowd was given tuition on election day: if you're in line, don't leave until you've voted. If you're in line, don't let them close the polling station. You can wear an Obama shirt. Don't let them disqualify you.

They were also told which ID would be accepted.

There remains a residual fear that once again people will stay at home on election day, particularly if the weather is bad.

The other fear concerns race, that some working class Democrats won't vote for a black candidate. The issue is openly discussed and no-one knows what part it will play in the silence of the voting booth.

This afternoon we were in Scranton, where Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared with Joe Biden and his wife Jill. There are still people who voted for Hillary in the primaries but are resisting voting for Barack Obama. We met a biker called Joe who was precisely in that position. He said he'd supported Hillary but was worried about Obama's background.

Bill Clinton wanted the audience to know first that it was his and Hillary's 33rd wedding anniversary. He also seemed keen to answer critics that Hillary was not somehow pulling her weight for Obama. She has done 50 events for Obama, he told the crowd. No former candidate, in his view, had done more.

Hillary still has strong support in places like Scranton. She was met with long chants of "Hillary, Hillary, Hillary". So, even though the polls are encouraging, the Democrats are deploying the Clintons to try to target white, working class voters.

The signs are, however, that the economic crisis is driving doubters into the Obama camp. The pollsters are noting a sharp increase in support for Obama and most of that is due to a feeling "that the country is on the wrong track".

As regards the wider strategy: the Obama team plans to count down the clock over the final 22 days. Barack Obama will appear presidential and calm. The aim is to reassure. No magic is needed. The pressure is all on McCain. That's how the Obama camp sees it.

So how to deal with optimism? Take no risks, avoid personal attacks, stay on message with the economy and ensure the grassroots organisation is working.

The candidate as Ordinary Joe

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 11 Oct 08, 11:24 PM GMT

PHILADELPHIA: We stood outside the Mayfair Diner in north-east Philadelphia today, waiting for Barack Obama.

The diner, in brushed chrome, glistened in the stark autumn sunshine.

As I looked around, it seemed the perfect back-drop. Across the road was the Soft Pretzel Factory which was next to Shop 'N Go selling hoagies and cold cuts. This was a location where every detail placed the candidate among ordinary ''working" Americans.

Obama supporters in western PhiladelphiaBarack Obama gave the diner a plug and suggested we all head there afterwards.

Nothing in the final month happens by chance. This location was carefully chosen. Obama knows that the group most resistant to him are white working-class Americans. Some voters find him aloof -somehow different from them. And image matters.

John Kerry's Advisers told him not to go wind-surfing. It set him apart, they argued. He would not have it. Some of Obama's advisers have suggested he needs to be seen eating fast-food. He must be an ordinary American.

Sarah Palin has gone much further. She peppers her speeches with folksy phrases like "doggone it" and drops in a conspiratorial wink. She not only pitches her appeal to "Joe Six Pack", she believes that it's time for the Joe Six Packs of the world to be heard, to be at the top table of power.

Here's a thought we were having as we sat near Billie's Boomer Lounge, by Locust Street, waiting for the fourth Obama event of the day. No politician can afford to appear aloof but do people want a president who is "ordinary Joe", just like themselves? Surely, I argued, we want leaders who are smarter than ourselves?

Not necessarily so, I discovered in conversation. No-one, it seems, likes a smart politician.

Barack ObamaLater in the day Obama said, "I like sweet potato pie," and chatted about the recipe. The crowd liked it - they connected to the candidate.

What does not seem to work is when people suspect a candidate is acting outside their own skin. During the last campaign, I remember John Kerry going duck shooting. When he returned carrying the bird, no-one believed he had actually shot it.

But every day, each candidate wants the voters to feel he or she understands them and is just like them.

Of course they are not, but the voter must feel they are.

One state, two countries

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 10 Oct 08, 03:21 AM GMT

Dayton and Wilmington, Ohio: Ohio - the state is so important to both campaigns that candidates almost collide with each other.

And yet they can appear to inhabit different countries.

We began the day at Fifth Third Field - home of the Dayton Dragons - with Barack Obama.

dayton203.jpg

The crowd is diverse, boisterous. Almost certain of victory. The mood is celebratory in the October sun.

The emphasis of the event is jobs; 35,000 lost in past five years. The enthusiasm for the candidate Is real.

Obama emerges from the bleachers to U2's City of Blinding Lights. He bounds up the steps, graceful In his loose-fitting suit.

Obama starts straight with the economy. "This is a moment of great uncertainty," he says. Then there is a sound problem. The crowd is with him as he changes microphone. Some shout "We love you". His message is populist. "I'll be a president not just looking out for CEOs but for you." He slams the idea of a bail-out for high-rolling real-estate speculators.

The morning mist burns off and Obama removes his jacket. He moves effortlessly from railing against the Bush administration and the greed on Wall Street to offering optimism.

He knows that no politician can win in America without offering hope for tomorrow. So crumbling roads and bridges will be re-built. Every American will get a world-wide education. The offers come tumbling out.

"I'm asking you to believe not in me," he says, "but in yourself." And he heads for the end. There are a few screams in the crowd. For some, he is a rock-star politician.Then it's two swigs of bottled water and he works the rope line. The crowd holds up books to be signed; they want to be photographed with him; they want him to hold their baby.
"He's a history man," says one young woman.

And then we're heading to Wilmington, Clinton County, past the corn stalks and into rural Ohio and another country. Sarah Palin is due for a 7pm appearance. Five hours before that, they start queueing. Some have driven for six hours. The crowd is not diverse. It is white. They love Sarah Palin. They love her certainty. She is one of them. She confirms their identity and who they are in this changing country. She shares their beliefs. Abortion. Guns. The military.

Many of them don't just prefer McCain-Palin - they detest Obama. Almost everyone I spoke to doubted Obama's patriotism. One woman said to me: "He's not American."

Before Sarah Palin arrives they play a video of her life in Alaska. Then the organisers drop some dry ice and her bus drives inside the conference centre. The crowds chant "Sarah, Sarah". It could be a scene out of Political Idol - if there was such a show.

At one point they break into chants of "USA, USA". She questions Obama's patriotism. I would like It, she says, if just once he backed "victory" in Iraq.

It is all red meat to this crowd and they leave fired up. She works the Republican base well. And another election day is over. One state, two countries - or so it sometimes seems.

The spin cycle

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 8 Oct 08, 10:58 PM GMT

Nashville, Tennessee: Spin Alley has become part of the ritual of the Presidential debates. Five minutes before the debate ends the camera crews and reporters crowd together waiting for the candidate's inner circle to come and make the pitch. The campaign managers, strategists and communications directors have heralds who arrive with large boards carrying their names.They're like Roman senators or prize fighters waiting for the standard to be placed and for the the contest to begin.


The spinners arrive within minutes of the debate ending. In the world of 24-hour news it is vital to get the line out there, to shape the news agenda. Even so it is surprising to stand there and to listen as these spinmeisters are asked "Who won?" as if they might opine that their candidate had had a bad night.

My expectations were slight yet last night in Nashville there was a rare ray of candour and it came from the Republican camp. Standing under his banner was Steve Schmidt,
John McCain's campaign manager. Yes, he said, we feel very good about John McCain's performance but then the candid assessment: "It remains a very close race," he said, but John McCain had a "tighter hill to climb than his opponent".


"We understand the difficulty," he said, in having an "R" next to your name. He was making the point that the Republican brand was hurting his candidate."We're still behind," he acknowledged, "but we remain in striking distance."

Privately the McCain team believe that if the focus remains on the economy they lose. In the congested space of Spin Alley I bumped into Fred Thompson, the former Presidential candidate. He thought McCain had had a good night but went on to say that the fate of the economy would determine the election. "To the extent it (the economy) goes down, it will hurt John."

The McCain campaign are wrestling with the problem. Just three weeks ago McCain was ahead or even. With the markets in free-fall the mood is growing that America is on the wrong Track. It is hard to make the case that you are the candidate of change when your party have controlled the White House for the past eight years.


That is the Republican dilemma and they're not disguising it.


And as the economy works in his favour, Barack Obama tries to reassure, to look Presidential. No magic needed. As their communications director, Robert Gibbs, said to me last night, "we couldn't be more thrilled".

Fighting dirty

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 7 Oct 08, 10:49 PM GMT

Nashville, Tennessee: Here's a question: if your opponent gets dirty, do you join him in the mud?

spinalley_226bbc.jpg

It came up in the media centre, or "Spin Alley", in the hours before the debate in Nashville.

Robert Gibbs, an Obama strategist, was chewing the fat with a few reporters. Spin, these days, is a 24-hour business. It precedes a debate and goes into over-drive afterwards.

Gibbs was wondering out loud which McCain would show up tonight. Would he be angry and desperate, or the candidate who thrives on town-hall meetings?

And then Gibbs was asked about going negative. The Obama camp believes we are entering a new phase in the campaign. The gloves have started to come off and the Republicans want to make the election a referendum on Obama the man.

They regard Sarah Palin's comment that Obama was "palling around with terrorists" as straight out of the nasty bag. So you might think that with Obama pulling ahead in some of the key states, his campaign would stay out of the street fights. But Gibbs saw it very differently: "If they want to get dirty - we'll go there with them."

Barack Obama is of the same mind: "We don't throw the first punch but we'll throw the last."

So, when the Republicans raised Obama's links to the former radical Bill Ayres, the Democrats hit back by high-lighting McCain's links to Charles Keating and the savings and loans scandal.

So why not stay out of a "slug-fest"? Imprinted in the Democrats' DNA is what happened to John Kerry and the attacks on his time in Vietnam in the Swift boats.

While his opponents questioned Kerry's war-time story and his heroism, his campaign said little. That enabled the story to take root. The Obama campaign believes not only in instant rebuttal but fighting back.

It's an interesting strategy because, as the ailing economy has worked for Obama, so he has tried to be reassuring and presidential. That has so irritated some Republicans that they've accused him of "coasting" to the White House. So, they would like nothing better than to draw him into a tough fight.

Race is still an issue

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 6 Oct 08, 07:24 PM GMT

Asheville, North Carolina: The first deep shades of autumn have descended on North Carolina.

The crowds at the local high school memorial stadium were still filing in when Barack Obama started speaking.

It looked impressive, but a young man said to me: "Go 10 miles up the road into the mountains and you'll hear a different story.

"Race is still an issue here."

So, later, we drove up I-63 and the Leicester Highway and turned on to a road that ran through the hills.

We were looking for interviews when we saw a man working a plot in the late afternoon sun. He was in his 50s and wore dark overalls.

He drew out his words as he thought about the election.

"I'm a Southerner," he told me, putting tomatoes into a wicker basket.

"My grandfather owned slaves, but I'm thinking of voting for a black man."

I looked at him. The comment seemed to surprise him even as he made it.

He thought about it for a while and added: "It was the Wall Street bail-out that has done it."

He was disgusted that the reckless bankers were being helped - he didn't agree with debt. He was sick of Washington and was prepared to give Mr Obama a chance.

"Something is wrong with America," he said.

I asked him to go on camera but he refused. "I see how TV chops you up," he said, without meaning offence.

But he confirmed that in these rural areas race is still an issue.

For men like himself, electing a black president is still a big step. The young man at the rally had been right.

But this brief meeting confirmed something else: that the economic turmoil is challenging old certainties and prejudices.

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