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Stateside: Lifeless dummies on a closed course

Stateside With Rosalea: 2004 Presidential Election

Lifeless dummies on a closed course. Do not attempt

By Rosalea Barker

I surrender. You just looked too, too good, Mr Prez, in your flying suit. Where do I get a job as the presidential strap-tightener? And when's the AWOL George action figure coming out, so I can put it with my GI Joe?

There's something deeply disturbing about the way George W. Bush has to be photographed all the time with tall skinny white guys in jumpsuits. At Easter, it was the two helicopter pilots who'd been captured in Iraq. Bush had a choice of photo ops at that time, and could have been seen with Army Specialist Shoshawna Johnson, who'd gotten shot in both ankles, and her four fellow army POWs when they returned to Fort Bliss. But no, he went to Fort Hood instead. Clearly GWB is a man of the pilots, not the people.

The made for TV appearance on the USS Abraham Lincoln will be remembered not for its connection with Operation Iraqi Fiefdom, but as the May Day opening salvo of the campaign for president in 2004. David Shields, one of the Friday evening regulars on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, commented on how totalitarian every appearance by GWB is these days. Certainly, the photo on the front page of the SF Chronicle on May 2 brought to mind the famous angular movie poster for 'The Battleship Potemkin', created by the Russian constructivist artist Anton Levinsky in 1925, at the start of Stalin's regime.

When the incumbent president can call up military hardware at whim and demand the networks play his addresses to the nation, what recourse do his challengers have? The Democrats have opted for a strategy of having so many people seeking to be their presidential candidate that they can have a different one on the talk shows every week for three months without viewers getting tired of any one face. And though the candidates disagree - at times bitterly - on many things, they at least can keep up a steady stream of criticism of Bush's domestic policies.

Last night (Saturday) was the Dems' opening salvo in the 2004 campaign. It was a televised debate among the current 9 presidential nomination hopefuls, held at the University of South Carolina and broadcast by ABC. The moderator was 'This Week' host George Stephanopoulos, who was briefly Clinton's communications director and is remembered by the White House press corps as trying to fence off reporters' access even more tightly that it already was.

The debate was not aired live here on the West Coast, where it would have had to replace 'Gladiator'. But it was replayed in its entirety at 12.35am Sunday morning, where it replaced 'Profiler' and was followed by 'The Usual Suspects'.

The Dems' presidential hopefuls are all from states east of the Mississippi River, perhaps reflecting an arrogant assumption that they will automatically take, for example, California. Maybe they're relying on President Bush's constant references to Iraq as "a nation the size of California" to scarify local Democrats by sending a subliminal message that he plans to occupy the Golden State this time around. The most powerful candidates in last night's debate are also plainly relying on Bush's finding weapons of mass destruction to validate their support of his invasion.

I will elaborate on the phrase "the most powerful" by telling you whom George Stephanopoulos shook hands with at the end of the debate, under the closing credits. He was first monopolised by Senators Kerry and Graham, leaving Edwards and Dean the choice of either hanging around looking silly, or going to shake the hands of other candidates. Stephanopoulos then gave cursory handshakes to Moseley-Braun and Kucinich, before chatting for a while with Senator Lieberman. Stephanopoulos had walked away to the other side of the stage when suddenly he came running back, as if commanded, to shake the hand of Congressman Dick Gephardt, former leader of the House Democrats.

You no doubt recognise Carol Moseley-Braun's name as she was recently the US ambassador to New Zealand. In fact, one of the biggest laughs of the evening came when Sen. Lieberman asked her what she would do to ensure that black voters weren't disfranchised again the way they were in Florida in 2000, leading to the election result being decided by Supreme Court Justices. She replied that she'd been in New Zealand at the time so was watching the election from afar: "There was a joke around that it *was* the black vote that decided the election - Clarence Thomas's." She exuded confidence and charm, but in her closing remarks stuck to ideals rather than policy.

The other African-American presidential hopeful in the debate was the Rev. Al Sharpton, described as "Community Activist". He compared the Bush tax cuts to the Kool-Aid Jim Jones's followers drank in Guyana in 1977 - it tasted nice but it was suicidal. When he gave his one-minute summary at the end he said he wants to see constitutional amendments regarding the right to vote, the right to healthcare and the right to education that will make the provision of those rights the responsibility of the federal, not state, government. (Although Amendment XV guarantees the right to vote, it is left up to the states to register voters.)

When they speak about tax cuts, the economy, healthcare and insurance, education, and job creation all the candidates seem to be on fairly common ground in opposition to what Bush proposes and has or hasn't done. They're divided about foreign policy, not just over Iraq, but over such things as free trade agreements. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, for example, would withdraw the US from NAFTA and the WTO.

And there are disagreements over what alternatives to offer, particularly with regards to healthcare. North Carolina Senator John Edwards doesn't like Dick Gephardt's healthcare plan because it still leaves too much money and control in the hands of big corporations like insurance and pharmaceutical companies. "The president works for those people," he said.

But the biggest disagreements are between Sen. Kerry and the former Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. The division between these two is seriously bitter, and was being played up by Stephanopoulos, until a couple of candidates mentioned that that tactic might make good entertainment but it would also delight any Republicans who were watching. Dean is very popular with California Democrats because of his straight-up opposition to the US taking unilateral action the way it did in Iraq.

He says he doesn't just want to take back America, but that he wants to take back the Democratic Party to its original ideals. Twice during the debate Kerry tried to demolish him, and both times Dean prevailed. In the second instance Kerry refered to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle some weeks ago that Dean had said Kerry (a Vietnam vet) lacked courage. In reply, all Dean had to do was point out that the very next day, the Chron had published a retraction, saying it had misrepresented what he said.

Given the power that the Democratic National Committee likes to wield in favour of its chosen ones, I trust Dean's guardian angel works overtime.

The winner of the most memorable sound bites would have to be Senator Lieberman who, when he wasn't quoting from the Bible, showed he had completely absorbed the two simple things conventional wisdom says the electorate wants to see in their president - strength and morality: "I'm ready to do the right thing for my country. That's what strength is."

Senator Graham, who will formally enter the race on May 6, came a close second with: "I come from the electable wing of the Democratic Party."

The nine:

Kucinich, Ohio (House)

Gephardt, Missouri (House)

Sharpton, Community Activist

Moseley-Braun, Illinois (Former Senator)

Lieberman, Connecticut (Senate)

Dean, Vermont (former Governor)

Edwards, North Carolina (Senate)

Graham, Florida (Senate)

Kerry, Massachusetts (Senate) has a link to video of the debate.

© Scoop Media

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