Newspapers as undecided as their readers over choice for president

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The Independent US

The Cleveland Plain Dealer made news here this week - but not for anything on its front page. Four years after coming out for George Bush in the 2000 presidential election, the paper of the second largest city in the critical swing state of Ohio stunned its readers by throwing up its editorial hands in despair and refusing to endorse either Mr Bush or John Kerry.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer made news here this week - but not for anything on its front page. Four years after coming out for George Bush in the 2000 presidential election, the paper of the second largest city in the critical swing state of Ohio stunned its readers by throwing up its editorial hands in despair and refusing to endorse either Mr Bush or John Kerry.

The Plain Dealer's dilemma is not unique; the normally staunchly pro-Republican Detroit News did the same, as did the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a few others. But its unusual decision captures the extraordinary passions, divisions and uncertainties swirling around this bitter 2004 election.

The leading article in question, published on Tuesday, essentially argued that both candidates had their pluses and minuses, and that readers were perfectly capable of making up their own minds. "We have decided not to add one more potentially polarising voice to a poisoned debate," The Plain Dealer explained.

The paper was itself divided - as are friends and families across the country. Driving through the towns and villages of this most typical of American states, Bush/Cheney and Kerry/ Edwards signs are sometimes to be seen on the same front lawns. Similar divisions afflict The Plain Dealer. Although its publisher Alex Machaskee backed Mr Bush, a clear majority of the paper's editorial board wanted to endorse his Democratic opponent. The compromise was to do nothing.

The impact is likely to be small. Endorsements are coveted by candidates and often - especially in the case of Mr Kerry - vigorously pursued. But the question remains, especially in an era of internet bloggers and alternative news: how much difference do they really make? Four days before the election, Mr Kerry is the clear leader. At the latest count he has the backing of 142 significant papers across the country, compared with 123 for the President. In terms of circulation the Democrat leads by 17.5 million to 11 million.

This year, 36 papers have switched from the Republican to the Democratic candidate, among them the Orlando Sentinel in another swing state, Florida, which has backed every Republican candidate since Richard Nixon in 1968.

"This President has utterly failed to fulfil our expectations," the Sentinel declared.

Only six papers that backed Al Gore in 2000 have gone the other way in 2004 - most notably The Denver Post, which received 700 angry letters from readers for its pains.

The really big ones, however, have gone according to form. To no one's astonishment, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer have opted for Mr Kerry. Equally predictably, the Chicago Tribune,The Washington Times and the New York Post have backed Mr Bush - as well as The Columbus Dispatch and both newspapers in Cincinnati, all of them major papers in a state that the candidates visit daily.

But these too are no real surprises. What would have been a surprise (and conceivably have moved a few votes) was if the usually pro-Democrat Washington Post had gone for Mr Bush. In the event, despite its strong support for the Iraq war, the Post went somewhat tepidly for the Democrat. Mr Kerry's sighs of relief were audible. The Wall Street Journal offered similar backing for Mr Bush. Were the Journal's editorial pages ever to embrace Mr Kerry, the Republican Party's problems almost certainly would be terminal.

But there have been some oddities. Mr Kerry once lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, but the gritty mill town's Sun newspaper is supporting Mr Bush. The Lone Star Iconoclast of Crawford, Texas, has lived up to its name by going for Mr Kerry.

But if newspaper endorsements probably make little difference, the news they print does. Right now the nearest thing to an October surprise in the campaign's closing stages has been the New York Times/ CBS story about the 350 tons of missing explosives in Iraq.

The Times (and to a lesser extent The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times) normally set the serious news agenda here, and the story has been seized upon by Mr Kerry in speech after speech as proof of Mr Bush's incompetence in Iraq. After ignoring the story for as long as he could, the President was forced to hit back at his opponent's "wild charges" at a rally in Ohio on Wednesday.

On the airwaves, the conservative talk-show hosts are beside themselves with rage at the infamous "liberal media". On Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh seemed about to blow a gasket in outrage at the report, as he saw it, a calculated effort to torpedo Mr Bush's campaign. Clearly news about Iraq's explosives are having an effect on this most finely poised of campaigns. Which is more perhaps than can be said for newspaper endorsements.

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