Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US presidential race set to be a battle of choirs

The fight for the presidency is likely to be won painfully, vote by vote and with old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing


To find Regal Montrose cinemas in Akron, Ohio, just head down the 77 interstate and follow globalization's glowing signs. Using brand names as landmarks, helpful people will guide you past Chili's ("Like no place else") and Steak 'n' Shake ("May I take your order?") and warn you that when you get to Taco Bell ("Think outside the bun") you have gone too far. Eventually you'll find it next to Staples, the chain stationers, whose slogan, appropriately enough, is "That was easy."

On these strips of Americana, which serve as both pit stops for the long-distance traveller and shopping centers for local people, you could be anywhere in the country. Only the weather suggests that you are in Akron rather than Anchorage or Arizona.

And so it was last Friday night as hundreds of thousands of people across the country turned up at their local cinema to buy a ticket for Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 on its opening night, either to find it was sold out or to emerge two hours later with tears in their eyes.

Linda Lejsovka, a 25-year-old supply teacher, walked away from the sold-out sign for the 10:30 p.m. screening saying she'd come back another day. Earlier, Suzanne Aylward came out of the 7:30 p.m. screening vowing "to get everybody I know" to see the film. Aylward was greeted by canvassers inviting her to a meeting to discuss the film and handing out Senator John Kerry stickers and badges, which she declined.

Aylward, who voted Ralph Nader last time, is going to back Kerry in November with reservations.

"People don't love Kerry because they're not sure what he stands for. But I'm going to vote for him because he's not Bush," she said.

One of the Kerry campaigners overheard and shouted: "That's not true. Look at his position papers. Listen to what he says."

Aylward shrugs dismissively and her friend, Bobbie Watson, takes over.

"I'm going to politely ask the people I know and who I trust and who trust me, who usually vote Republican or who haven't made up their minds, to at least consider voting for Kerry this time," she says. "I think they'll at least listen to me because they know I'm an open-minded person."

Welcome to the tone and tenor of the personal interactions that are going to assert the strongest influence on the forthcoming presidential election. In debates with friends, family and neighbors, at times hectoring, at others beseeching, filled with venom and vigor on both sides, such a close race is going to be won one vote at a time.

If Howard Dean's emergence from nowhere to challenge the Democratic establishment was described as "insurgent," then we are about to see the ground war. The air war of television advertising, mail shots and telemarketing will certainly help. But the millions of dollars already spent by both sides have simply kept them at a stalemate.

Most voters have already made up their minds. Many of those who haven't are going to have to be addressed personally. And it will be the lost art of old-style politicking, of door-to-door canvassing, mall leafleting and coffee-shop and bar-room conversations that will really make the difference.

With the nation polarized and so much at stake, the downward trend in active participation that has characterized US political culture for the past 30 years is set to be reversed. The percentage of Americans actively engaged in politics has been falling steadily and precipitously since the late 1960s.

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