Frayed Nerves and Rumours

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 2 Nov 08, 02:25 AM GMT

Highland, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio: It is that time in an election campaign when truth is most elusive. Much is read into small events and rumours travel fast. And spin is everywhere. Even the pumpkins have been carved into political slogans. All the insiders are nervous. The confident briefers are on edge.

Halloween pumpkins with the letters HOPE carved in them

Last night we were waiting in Highland, Indiana, for Obama. It was Halloween night
And I expected the crowd to be slim but it wasn't. We were on what is called the "riser", an elevated platform for camera positions. Places on the riser are hotly contested.
The Obama motorcade was late. Unlike most occasions Barack Obama had with him a small pool of reporters and cameramen.

Shortly after the senator arrived, but before he appeared on stage, one of the pool cameramen set up beside me. He could not quite believe what he had seen. After months of following Obama he had seen a flash of temper. The senator, wearing dark glasses for Halloween, had been walking one of his daughters down the street in Chicago when he was ambushed by a camera crew who were not part of the pool. Obama thought an agreement to take pictures from a distance had been broken and he was angry and let fly.

A moment and nothing more. But in the hours of frayed nerves everyone was discussing it. Within minutes it was running on the internet. Some said it revealed one of the truths of the campaign that Obama does not like the unexpected. He is very controlled himself and runs his campaign tightly. Others thought he was living now on the dangerous edge, weary, drained of energy and wanting it to be over.

So it was debated and discussed. The consensus was that most voters would sympathise with a candidate wanting a little time with his daughter. My hunch was that most people would side with the senator and not with the media.

At moments like that you think of the cost of seeking high office. The most natural things are denied to you. Not just now but maybe always if you are successful. The lenses are always present, probing and unforgiving.

Then this morning there was the issue of an Obama relative who was found to be living illegally in Boston. Was this a November surprise? Would this embarrass the candidate? Everyone waited, watching to see if a story catches fire. Very quickly Obama's Chicago office said that the candidate didn't know his relative was there and that the law must take its course. But then I heard someone suggesting that it might underline the idea of "the other" that Obama was an outsider.

It is that time in an election when volunteers are working hard, calls are being made and all commentators can do is speculate.

And into the vacuum march the spinmeisters. The McCain team is saying that the greatest fight back in political history is under way. The Obama camp are so confident they think they might even clinch Arizona - McCain's home state. McCain's people believe 10% of voters are undecided and that most of them are breaking for their candidate. The Obama advisers say the number of undecided voters is much less - perhaps 2% and that they are dividing fairly equally in their loyalties. Both cannot be right but both are wanting to claim the big Mo - momentum.

Voters waiting to cast advance ballots

Then, at this hour of high anxiety, people turn on the pollsters. Remember their
record, McCain supporters tell me. They were wrong about John Kerry (not all were) and what about the New Hampshire primary? Those of us who were in the UK at the time went to bed with assurances ringing in our ears of a Kerry victory only to wake to an entirely different story.

So at this late hour McCain supporters are saying "don't believe the polls". They're flakes. And less educated white voters don't apparently respond well to pollsters. I even read, while on a plane to Ohio today, that some evangelical radio stations are asking God to help voters ignore the polls.

Then there are the young voters who flocked to Obama's camp. The word is that they're sitting on their hands or transfixed by Jon Stewart's Daily Show, where most of them, so it is said, get their news. The word is that it's the under-35s who have been the most reluctant to vote early.

So what does it all mean? That this is the time of anxiety where events and statements should be treated with most caution.

What I can attest to, however, is enthusiasm. The kind of enthusiasm that keeps you standing in a queue at a polling station in Franklin county in Ohio today for five hours. The enthusiasm that persuades you to bring your children with you on a beautiful autumn day to the polling station, knowing they will be bored. The enthusiasm that means that Franklin County thought there would be 12,000 early voters and 41,000 have shown up so far. That tells you something - that the greatest political show on the planet has engaged millions of Americans.

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