Decision day for America

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The Independent US

Some time this evening, possibly in the early hours of tomorrow if the contest is as tight as everyone thinks, Albert Gore Jr or George W Bush will be elected the 43rd President of the US - and after eight brilliant but feckless years of Bill Clinton, the mantle of most powerful man in the world will descend on a fresh pair of shoulders.

Some time this evening, possibly in the early hours of tomorrow if the contest is as tight as everyone thinks, Albert Gore Jr or George W Bush will be elected the 43rd President of the US - and after eight brilliant but feckless years of Bill Clinton, the mantle of most powerful man in the world will descend on a fresh pair of shoulders.

It has been a campaign of paradoxes; the most important and the longest of its kind in the Western world and, at some $1bn (£700m) for the presidential race alone, incontrovertibly the most expensive. And yet, this contest - whose outcome will be treated in Britain as an omen for our own general election - is one in which a turn-out of even marginally over 50 per cent will be hailed as a triumph for democratic participation.

The candidates criss-crossed the main states still up for grabs in a last dizzying rush yesterday: "I trust the people, I trust they have heard our message and tomorrow I believe we are going to have a good day," said Mr Bush. At the other end of the country, Mr Gore implored voters: "Once again, it's in your hands, and I know it's in good hands."

In an age when America is prosperous and at peace, neither candidates nor issues have captured the national imagination. Yet, as a horse race, it has been without equal. The polls give Mr Bush a tiny edge, but no pundit worth his name is wagering a dime on the outcome.

This great exercise in democracy beganwith the Iowa caucuses on 24 January, and progressed, with long interludes, through a primary season to the nominating conventions, to the post-Labor Day home straight and finally to the the nail-biting climax - which, in the case of Mr Gore, meant a 3,000-mile sprint due to end in a 24-hour restaurant in Tampa, Florida.

But Election 2000 really began far earlier; for Mr Gore at the very instant Bill Clinton was re-elected to a second term. "Gore in Four," they chanted at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1996, and so it has come to pass - almost.

For Mr Bush, that moment came in November 1998, the day he won unprecedented re-election as Governor of Texas. Suddenly, the Republicans were convinced they had a winner, and Mr Bush was able to raise a record $100m for the primary season alone.

This is a classic American match between an amiable but none-too-brainy, big-state governor and a seasoned Washington policy expert. It is commonly described as the closest since 1960, when John Kennedy pipped Richard Nixon by 0.17 per cent of the popular vote with the help, many believe, of "some friends" of the Chicago mayor, Richard Daley - whose son, William, is now the Gore campaign manager.

But the truer parallel is with 1980, when Jimmy Carter, master of the issues, was thrashed by Ronald Reagan, the less-qualified but more appealing Governor of California, by a margin of 489 votes to 49 in the electoral college, a rout of a sitting president matched only by Franklin Roosevelt's crushing of the vilified Herbert Hoover in 1932.

No one expects either candidate to score that kind of victory today. But 20 years ago, just as now, Mr Reagan and Mr Carter were neck-and-neck in the polls until almost the last moment, when the undecided broke overwhelmingly for the challenger. Will the same thing happen again?

Possibly, but economic circumstances argue against it. In 1980, Mr Reagan asked voters a simple question: were they better off than they were four years earlier? The answer, in that era of oil crises and stagflation, was a resounding "no".

The Vice-President's strongest card today is the eight-year boom. Not only rich Americans, but most ordinary workers, say they are better off than when Mr Clinton removed George Bush Senior from the White House. But the final polls suggest Mr Gore has not capitalised on this advantage.

But the election has other fascinating undertones. Will we witness the historic revenge of the Bush dynasty, as the son of the vanquished president returns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, defeating the chosen heir of the Arkansas upstart who defeated his father? Or are we to see the consolidation of a different American political dynasty as the Vice-President, a former senator from Tennessee, builds on his father's Washington accomplishments?

What is at stake is harder to quantify. Mr Gore talks of a "fork-in-the-road" election, framing it as a choice between a further journey across the sunlit economic uplands, and a return to the days of huge budget deficits and general economic dissatisfaction that contributed so much to Mr Clinton's victory.

Mr Bush, meanwhile, was driving home his own message, that the Vice-President is a creature of Washington, bent on bringing back the "Big Government" which most Americans say they detest, and promising to slash taxes and rain the $4,000bn of projected budget surpluses upon the heads of a grateful citizenry.

The choice is more imaginary than real. American presidents may propose, but in domestic matters, Congress disposes. Less noticed, the battles for control of the Senate and House of Representatives are as close as the race for the White House.

The latest polls suggest the Democrats will eat into the Republicans' 54-46 seat hold on the Senate. In the House, just seven seats need to change hands for the Democrats to regain the control they lost to the 1994 Newt Gingrich revolution. Whoever becomes President will be forced to govern by compromise. Not surprisingly, Wall Street's quiet prayer is for more divided government and gridlock - meaning neither side has the power to enact legislation that might disturb the longest boom since the Second World War.

And if the polls are anything to go by, that may just be what Wall Street will get.

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