Blood and oil raise the stakes in US election

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The Independent US

With the Middle East in turmoil, the stock market tumbling and oil prices shooting ever upward, the United States presidential election race has suddenly turned from a dreary slanging match over prescription drugs and fiscal responsibility into something altogether more sober and serious.

With the Middle East in turmoil, the stock market tumbling and oil prices shooting ever upward, the United States presidential election race has suddenly turned from a dreary slanging match over prescription drugs and fiscal responsibility into something altogether more sober and serious.

Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush face theprospect of having to pronounce on life-and-death issues in world affairs at their third and final debate, in St Louis tomorrow night. That could dramatically raise the stakes of the campaign above the minutiae of domestic policy and questions of personality.

What is not clear in a nail-bitingly close race, however, is which candidate has more to gain - or lose - from the looming global crises.

Vice-President Gore has the benefit of being in on the decision-making. Indeed, he has twice cut short campaign stops in the past few days to rush back to Washington for White House meetings. On the other hand, any worsening of the situation in the Middle East could work against him if his rival successfully depicts the turmoil as the result of failed policies by the Clinton administration.

Governor Bush, meanwhile, will hope that the heady mix of blood and oil in the Middle East will cast voters' minds back to his father's finest hour, the Desert Storm offensive that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. His running mate, George Bush Sr's erstwhile Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, has come into his own, having looked awkward and gaffe-prone for much of the past two months. The polls show that public opinion places more trust in Republicans on foreign policy, and Mr Cheney is the best possible embodiment of that perception.

Competence, or at least the appearance of it, is likely to be a decisive factor in tomorrow night's town-hall style debate. In theory, Mr Gore should be streets ahead - he has years of experience in foreign and security issues, while his rival seems to have only a faint notion of the world beyond America's borders. And yet Mr Bush managed to hold his own on foreign affairs in last week's debate - hardly a stellar performance, but one that suggested he was able to do his homework and get passing grades.

"If W, who has been winging it on foreign affairs, had given a shakier debate performance on Wednesday, the race might be over," Maureen Dowd observed in her New York Times column yesterday. "But in Winston-Salem, W was like Peter Pan. You knew there were wires holding him up... But the Bush team did a pretty good job of hiding those wires for an hour and a half." It's a tricky area on which to fight an electoral race. Partly because of his status, Mr Gore has felt constrained to limit his remarks to generalities; Mr Bush, meanwhile, has not dared criticise the administration for fear of being accused of dividing the country and looking unstatesmanlike.

Mr Bush has been the most recent beneficiary of traction in thepolls, but the gap he has opened up is so tiny - just two or three percentage points - as to be statistically insignificant.

Mr Gore's advisers are urging him to go back on the offensive, after last week's self-effacing, almost apologetic performance. They say he has to emphasise the sharp differences in policy and experience, even if this risks making him look arrogant and overbearing.

The Bush camp, meanwhile, is bashing away at threethemes: that smaller government is good government, that Messrs Clinton and Gore have failed in key areas, and that Mr Gore is untrustworthy. In a race this close, it could be a gaffe rather than a persuasive argument that could settle the leadership of the world's most powerful country for the next four years.

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