Bush, Kerry heading towards Nov cliffhanger
WASHINGTON: Six months before their November 2 showdown, US President George W. Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry are locked in a bitter battle for the White House that could rival the wild cliffhanger of 2000, analysts say.
The latest polls show the Republican president and the Massachusetts senator running neck and neck in an increasingly personal contest fought over the issues of the economy, Iraq and the war on terror.
Bush has been taking hits over the mounting US death toll in Iraq and continued doubts about his management of the economy, while Kerry has been struggling to fend off Republican attacks on him as waffling and weak on defence.
But more fundamentally, analysts say, the two men are wrestling over a political landscape that has become highly polarised in the past two decades with the balance of power hanging on a knife’s edge.
This produced one of the most heart-stopping windups in election history four years ago when Bush beat former vice president Al Gore only after a hotly disputed recount in the state of Florida that went to the US Supreme Court.
Political experts such as Gallup poll managing editor Jeffrey Jones say all the ingredients are there for the same sort of climax this year, with the outcome turning on any one of a number of “battleground” states.
“It’s quite possible the 2004 election will be a near replay of the 2000 election in many respects,” Jones wrote. “Traditional group patterns look as if they will continue, and the breakdown in electoral votes could also be similar.”
The key is in the idiosyncratic system used in the United States, where voters do not cast ballots directly for the president but rather for electoral college members whose votes formally designate the chief executive.
As such, the presidency is decided in a mosaic of contests in the 50 states and federal District of Columbia for electoral votes usually awarded on a winner-take-all basis.
The 538 electoral votes are apportioned according to population. Bush won in 2000 by beating Gore 271 to 267 in the electoral vote contest, although Gore had a 544,000-vote edge in the popular vote tally, only the fourth time this has occurred in US history.
Bush and Kerry appear to be heading down the same path.
A Gallup survey published Tuesday said Bush led Kerry 56-39 percent in states he won by more than five percentage points in 2000. The Democrat led Bush 57-38 percent in states that Gore won by more than five points.
But the 12 states decided by five percentage points or less four years ago, six won by Bush and six by Gore, remain agonisingly close, with Bush holding a 49-46 percent edge over Kerry.
So Kerry and Bush will be targeting their time and television advertising money on areas where they feel they can get a leg up, and the outcome may hinge on a mix of national issues, strictly local concerns and personal chemistry.
For instance, some analysts said, Kerry might make a big push in the midwestern states of Ohio and Missouri, where Bush won narrowly in 2000 and the loss of jobs has become a big issue.
Bush will try to dislodge states from the Democratic column such as industrial Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the Republican gave Gore a good fight four years ago.
Pollster John Zogby said Kerry was strong among those who say the United States is generally “on the wrong track.” Polls show the Democrat trusted more to manage the economy.
“Bush is still favoured as the president who can handle terrorism best,” Zogby wrote. “Kerry will have to chip away at that Bush strength.”
A wild card could be the independent candidacy of consumer activist Ralph Nader, who is accused of drawing crucial support from Gore in 2000 and throwing the election to Bush. Democrats fear he could do the same to Kerry. —AFP