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US Elections: The Equestrian Events

Rosalea Barker - based in the US - is Scoop’s new US Presidential elections columnist and will be filing a round-up of news, views and observations from the campaign trail every Monday from now till the poll.

Tuesday 7 November is Melbourne Cup Day. The next day - as the world downunder turns - but on the same date in history, are the US elections.

America is the ultimate two-horse town and you could be forgiven for thinking that when citizens go to cast their vote they only have to tick one box and choose between two candidates - Bush and Gore - because that choice is what gets the most coverage in the news. Even here.

In California there's an occasional flurry of news stories to do with Ralph Nader because he and the Greens are popular here, but it doesn't take much to see that the two concepts - 'Nader for President' and the Green philosophy - are actually at odds with each other. Ever heard of a Co-President? And if you want to know who Nader's running mate is - the person who would become Vice President if he were chosen as President - you'd have to look it up on the internet. She's a native American, Winona LaDuke.

Then there was the wonderful stouch that occurred at the Reform Party Convention between two hopefuls vying for the party's nomination as its presidential candidate. At stake was the $12 million in federal campaign funding the party's eligible for this time round. At last, said one commentator, a party convention worth covering because it showed the real intent of the Consititution in action - people actually getting to choose between presidential candidate hopefuls and getting passionate about it.

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Over the years that outcome has increasingly been decided beforehand so that the conventions can be just a bland four-day TV commercial that doesn't have to be paid for. Pat Buchanan got the Reform Party and the money; John Hagelin got the Natural Law Party.

Why is the presidential race so important? After all, the guide booklet voters get before election day is as thick as the Listener. It includes ballots for state and local body representatives and for proposed new or changed laws, along with candidates' statements, the text of the legal measures and propositions, the arguments for and against them and the rebuttals thereof, and an analysis of how much they'll likely cost the taxpayer.

The measures, that is, not the candidates. In some parts of California voters might get up to 100 choices to make on election day. Perhaps THAT is why the presidential race gets so much attention - simple, made-for-TV political sport. Especially with 246 candidates contesting it.

But the really weird thing is - when they choose between the presidential candidates appearing on their state's ballot paper, Americans aren't actually voting for the President. They're telling the members of their state's Electoral College which presidential candidate to vote for.

Members of the Electoral College can just ignore the citizens' wishes if they want - and on a couple of occasions in the past they have, though it didn't influence the outcome of the election in those instances. There are 538 members of the Electoral College, with California, being the most populous state, having 54 of them. Which is why it's an important state for Nader to win, and why it's important for him to meet other states' criteria for getting on their ballot papers. To win, the successful presidential candidate needs at least 270 EC votes, and their popularity in the national vote overall is not important.

So where is Nader on the three most-reported stories in California - the tyre recall, oil prices, and traffic congestion? Look it up on the internet - Americans have to. And the same goes for finding the views of any presidential hopeful who doesn't belong to one of the two parties that has dominated US politics for over 100 years, despite the Framers of the Constitution declaring political parties to be anathema to their idea of a true democracy.

What is more, only Bush and Gore will be in the presidential debates because only Bush and Gore stand more than a theoretical chance of being elected president, and only Bush and Gore have more than a 15% average over the five public opinion polls used as an eligibility yardstick. So sayeth the non-partisan, non-profit organization that has arranged the presidential debates since 1988, and which sets the criteria - notwithstanding Buchanan's argument that since he's receiving $12 million of taxpayers' money to contest the election taxpayers have a right to see what they've spent their money on.

Day by day we see Bush and Gore battle it out in the news. I have to say that, once the Republican attack on White House morals was put in its place by the overlong kiss Gore gave his wife before his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, I had bet on the tyre recall being a major issue.

It seemed like the perfect thing to rally closet xenophobes around. The Ford and Firestone/Bridgestone CEO's are foreigners, for heaven's sake, and they neglected to tell the American people about the dangers of using their products even when they allegedly knew of the deaths of consumers overseas from the same problem. Heck, that Nasser guy even allowed himself to be voted "Car Guy of the Year" in 1999, adding insult to fatal injury.

Attention turned instead to the oil shortage, prompting Gore to say he'd get tough on car manufacturers who didn't produce combination electric/gas vehicles so that the US is no longer so dependent on Middle East oil producers (just in case any Democrats were turning xenophobic because of the tyre thing, and, oh, as a sop to any worried about global warming). Then President Clinton decided to release fuel from the emergency rations hidden away in secret caverns in case of war or blockade. A cynic can only guess that, with winter coming on, keeping home heating oil costs down is as good as a Republican tax cut any day.

Bush countered by saying that the Clinton administration was callously using up the emergency supplies for political advantage and placing the nation at risk - thereby bringing us back to the 'monsters out in the woods' scenario. Or 'out in the desert' to be more correct - those monstrous "sick nations", made much of at the Republican Convention, who are manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and waiting for a chink to appear in the US armour, already weakened by the Democrats' neglect of the armed forces.

That convention was pretty scary stuff to watch when you haven't been brought up to believe that America is the most powerful nation in the world because of a divine decree (and when you've got a posse of armed police surrounding your abode because a suspicious package has been delivered to the Yemeni shopkeepers downstairs). Even scarier is the thought that Bush might get so far behind in the polls that only a Big Event will shake voters out of the feather bed the booming economy has made for them and, consequently, the incumbent Vice President. But hey, it was a Democrat campaign manager who put that scary thought in my head!

No matter how many horses in this race, I still reckon the horseless carriage will win, tyres down. Any time of year, automobile-related stories get more coverage in the news than all the 'kitchen table' issues - taxes, education, Medicare - put together. God bless the lawmaker brave enough to force the auto industry to have their advertising carry consumer warnings about the side effects of improper use the way pharmaceutical commercials do.

Oh, and Hakkinen for President!

Lea Barker
Sunday, 24 September
US Eastern Time

See www.debates.org for information about the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates.

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