Crossing the red and blue lines that divide America

AT 6am yesterday, a good hour before dawn, George W Bush was already up and about.

At Wilmington in Ohio he gave a throng of Republican supporters the reheated porridge that is his stump speech, exhorting them to galvanise support in this key swing state.

Bush promised a "safer and stronger America" and gave the standard diss of his 'liberal' rival from the east coast.

A little later, in Pittsburgh, he proclaimed he could see the "finish line in sight."

In sight it may be, but after a horrible fraught marathon, it is still a sprint for the finish. The pre-dawn Ohio rally was the first of seven speeches the president would give yesterday in a frenetic and exhausting blitz across the US. In all he criss-crossed six states, most of them the finely-balanced battlegrounds on which this election hinges.

Just after midnight last night, nearly 20 hours later, Bush was due to arrive back to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he will cast his vote this morning.

For his rival, John Kerry, the last day of the campaign was also sapping. His was also a pre-dawn start in Orlando, Florida, another state cleaved down the middle. Yesterday's journey took Kerry predictably to the mid-west, to Wisconsin and Michigan before he brought his campaign to an end in Cleveland, Ohio, serenaded by the ever-willing Bruce Springsteen.

In early afternoon, Bush addressed a rally in Milwaukee in Wisconsin. An hour later, Kerry also arrived in Milwaukee and stumped it at a park only three blocks away. Republican supporters leaving mingled with Democrats arriving. That's how microscopic it has become. In a country with such a vast population, the presidency may turn on a few hundred votes. Closer than the 1960 battle between Kennedy and Nixon. Maybe closer than the 572 votes that sent Bush to the Oval Office in 2000.

POLLS AND PREDICTIONS

EVERYBODY with any modicum of sense has thrown in the towel on the prediction game weeks ago. It's like throwing a dice or guessing Lotto numbers. In the past three days, national polls have flatly contradicted each other.

For even the most seasoned experts, November 2 is a fuzzy blur you don't dare to call.

Collectively, though, the polls show Kerry marginally ahead in key states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. If Kerry wins these states he will certainly win the presidency.

It could give rise to a delicious irony. Kerry could do a true flip-flop on the 2000 election. He might win the presidency despite getting less votes nationally than Bush, reversing what Bush did to Gore in 2000.

But then, Bush may yet defy the long-held wisdom of the importance of Ohio. If he wins Michigan (which has 17 votes), he could become the first Republican president since 1892 to get elected to the White House without taking Ohio.

CLOSING THE CAMPAIGNS

FOUR years ago, Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove was so hyper-confident of victory he eased the foot of the throttle in the last week. It was a mistake and one he has not dared to repeat. This time round, neither camp is leaving anything to chance.

Bush looked drawn and a bit haggard yesterday and so did Kerry. But the riding instructions are to remain chipper and to look presidential. And so a posture has to be struck, a chorus-line dancer's false smile re-engineered for candidates.

Bush's bomber jacket might have kept the cold out yesterday morning but it has also been carefully chosen to appeal to the middle-America of baseball caps and sneakers.

To be sure, Kerry isn't exactly a Democratic candidate out of central casting. He has a huge charisma. His handlers have had the unenviable task of spinning an aristocratic Boston Brahmin into a regular guy.

THE DIVISIONS

IF there is one thing the Bush term has proved it is the sense of common purpose (of an America united) after by 9/11 has been shattered. The opposite materialised as his administration relentlessly pursed a hawkish military and domestic agenda. The divisions have cleaved America. Rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal, religious versus secular, isolationists versus internationalists. When you look at a map of America the centre and South are coloured red (Republican) with both coasts plus Illinois coloured blue (Democrats).

THE 'GROUND WAR'

AND which of these two nations will prevail boils down to what they call the 'ground-war', when the party machines swing into action to get their vote out. The time for talking has ended. What may clinch the election will be the ability of each side to get a high turnout of their voters.

In a worse case scenario if it is very close the decision will be made at a later stage. Some 20% of the votes in some states like Ohio are absentee ballots and provisional votes (the votes are allowed on the day but are sure to be contested later).

If the result is close, these will come into play, as will an enormous raft of legal writs.

Both camps agree that turnout will be critical. The consensus is that a higher turnout will favour the Democrats. But then it could also be affected by weather. An unusually wet cold day would favour Republicans, who tend to be all-weather voters.

THE OSAMA FACTOR

THE conspiracy theorists had it that bin Laden had been captured months ago but was kept in storage, his capture to be unveiled at a strategic moment.

Bin Laden dramatically made an appearance as the race entered its final furlong.

Yesterday, the prevailing opinion in political circles was that his intervention wasn't a deal-breaker.

THE ISSUES

ANYBODY who saw the first television debate between George Bush and John Kerry essentially saw all the issues played out during the entire US presidential campaign.

The second and third debates rehashed everything from debate number one.

For an outside observer, the single transferrable speech has been carried to ridiculous lengths.

What we have got from both camps is a farrago of half-truths and unproven assertions that are repeated even when shown to be blatantly unfounded.

Thus Bush argues his Iraq strategy is working, his administrations has kept America safe, the war in Iraq will be won. There will be free elections in January. They will be as credible as the free and democratic Kuwait promised to us all back in 1991. But it makes no difference. This is the line. You never waver from it.

Kerry is mocked as an east coast liberal, racked by indecision and flip-floppery. The strongest Bush line of the past week is Kerry will say anything to get elected.

The Republicans, it seems to me, have been much better and much more focused in their strategy. The constant reference to God and the 'higher authority' are aimed at four million Evangelical Christians who did not vote in 2000.

Though Kerry has gone hell-for-leather after Bush over the Iraqi war, the strategy has not fully succeeded.

Most Americans agree Iraq is a mess. But by a massive paradox, a clear majority trust Bush over Kerry to handle the war and homeland security.

Where Kerry out-ranks his rival is on domestic issues like the economy and health-care.

Late last night, both retreated to their home States, Texas and Massachusetts. And that too speaks volumes, geographical and philosophical. One is southern and conservative, the other east coast and liberal.

A fault-line runs through America.

There is one election. There will be only one president. But you have two candidates presenting a vision of two vastly different countries.

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