The pom-pom girls forgave him. Can America?

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The Independent US

It was a triumph of Republican organisation. One hundred hours before polling time, George W Bush hit Cornerstone University, a Baptist campus here in Michigan that tells its students to live by the Bible. A fine place to stress Bush the better man.

It was a triumph of Republican organisation. One hundred hours before polling time, George W Bush hit Cornerstone University, a Baptist campus here in Michigan that tells its students to live by the Bible. A fine place to stress Bush the better man.

The clean-cut were here in droves, many of them young men and women who preferred to talk about Jesus than about football.

Two brass bands raised the rafters with heart-lifting marches, cheerleading girls shook their pom-poms and a plane circled above trailing the American flag and the victory message, Bush-Chaney 2000.

Except that by dawn yesterday, it all seemed like less of a good idea. Drunken driving is not on the curriculum in a moralising institution like this - where you will be expelled for being gay.

But, as all of America now knows, drinking was once a weakness of Mr Bush's. And he drove drunk too. But how much of a sin was that, back in 1976?

The thousands who crammed into the new Bernice Hansen Athletic Center here had already forgiven him. But the question remained. How many voters across the land will still think it a sin on Tuesday? How many - and it is too soon to gauge - will change their votes because of it?

If the Bush troops here in Michigan were shaken by the drinking revelation, they were not showing it. Maybe they hadn't heard the news, as Republican officials one by one pumped up the crowd before his arrival with jokes about Al Gore's alleged deficit in the honesty department.

"What's the difference between George Washington, Richard Nixon and Al Gore?" one asked, borrowing a gag from the late-night television comedian Jay Leno. "Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth and Gore can't tell the difference."

It was fairly funny but the laughter inside here was thunderous.

Then, late as usual, Mr Bush came onstage. Arnold Schwarz-enegger was to have been by his side but had not turned up. Had Arnie decided at the last minute to keep a safe distance?

Mr Bush seemed strong and calm. That nervous nostril sniff he does was still there, but not really more obviously than on other days.

And he stuck resolutely, at least at first, to the same speech he has been delivering across the country. Mr Bush artfully played the theatre of confidence, striving to reinforce the image of a candidate who knows he is going to win and, through the logic of self-fulfilling prophecy, will win.

He bashed Mr Gore for trying to wield the "heavy hand of government". He accused him of trusting the government while he was there to "trust the people". He talked about tax, health care and the military. Then, at last, he talked about it. Drunken driving. Well, he almost did.

In fact, he offered a subtle variation on his now daily pitch about integrity and, by implication, the absence of it in the White House during the Clinton years.

When he puts his hand on the Bible on inauguration day, he said, he will swear to uphold the laws of the land - he gave up drinking at 40 - and, "To uphold the integrity and honour of the office".

Then, with one sentence, he drew the loudest and most sustained roar of support and adjuration of the morning.

"I have made mistakes in my life and I'm proud to tell you I have learnt from those mistakes." That was it. And the disciples were satisfied. "There, he admitted it," a man behindwhispered. "So that's fine."

But even here, there were some who were worried, like Ralph Thomas, a retiree in a silly Uncle Sam hat selling Bush-Cheney badges to the crowd.

"I don't think Mr Bush should be talking about integrity in the White House too much more," he said. "I think this will kind of level the playing field on that issue."

Nor, for Mr Thomas, is drinking and driving a small offence. "Seems to me that when you drink and drive, lives are at stake. But sex? Sex is fun and that's why Mr Clinton is my hero."

But he is one Michigan voter who still hasn't made up his mind how to vote. Christine Fong had dared to work the crowd with a banner reading, "Billionaires for Bush" - although she brought a burly male friend to protect her.

"I think when a person doesn't volunteer the truth, like Bush, that's just the same as lying," she said.

But the most fervent forgivers here were the most fresh-faced, such as Josh Kaufman, who is still in High School but at 18 will vote.

"This isn't going to make any difference," he said. "We all do stupid things when we are young."

And, like almost everyone here in Michigan, he smells a Democrat dirty trick. "I knew Gore would do something like this and it shows how desperate he is."

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