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Out of the west: A jaundiced electorate rediscovers its voice

CHICAGO - I and most of my colleagues must make a confession. Were we not writing a few months ago, almost to a man, that this presidential election would signal a new low-water mark for American democracy?

After all, participation in the primaries was lower than ever, in inverse proportion to public disenchantment with the two main party candidates. The campaign, we opined with cynical certitude, would plumb uncharted depths of negative campaigning, and turnout on the big day itself would be smaller even than the abysmal 49 per cent of four years back.

Happy to relate, we are about to be proved magnificently and utterly wrong. The old conventional wisdom of 1992 has been turned on its head. Maybe it was the advent of Ross Perot, maybe the plight of the economy woke everyone up. Maybe it was just the feeling that at last real choice was on offer. Probably the truth is a combination of all three. Whatever the case though, the turn-off suddenly has become the turn-on. America is into politics again. If you are unconvinced, consider a few facts. People are registering to vote, which is by no means a simple process in this country, in numbers not seen in years. In New York City, more than 600,000 more people have signed on, bringing the theoretical electorate on 3 November to 3.2 million, the highest level since Nixon beat McGovern in 1972.

The same story goes for absentee voters. In Los Angeles alone, such was the demand that available ballots briefly ran out last week. The message from people is: Do not count us out; this time we want to be part of the process. Then take the presidential debates. Television ratings of the final debate between Bush, Perot and Clinton in Michigan on Monday night suggested 90 million people tuned in, eclipsing even the record 76 million and 84 million who watched the first two debates. All right, the baseball World Series was taking a night off, but Monday's viewing figures were none the less impressive - half as many again as the audiences for the Bush-Dukakis contests of 1988. Even if they lose, Clinton and Perot could probably retire on the strength of royalty earnings from paperback versions of their programmes, which have been bestsellers for weeks.

Ross Perot, whose campaign consists almost exclusively of nightly dollars 500,000 ( pounds 300,000) prime- time 'info-mercial' slots on the networks, was his usual irritating, succinct self on Monday.

'If people say the attention span of the American people is five minutes, why do 16 million of them sit and watch a guy with a funny accent going through flip- charts for half an hour on TV?' A good question.

Whatever the lingering arguments about the cause, there can be none about the effect. Perot may have sparked America's rediscovered enthusiasm for politics but the beneficiary has been Bill Clinton. George Bush's veto last spring of the 'motor-voter' bill, which would have made it far easier to get on the electoral register, may have been an ignoble deed but he had a point.

Overwhelmingly, the newcomers are Democrats, men and women, poor and rich, black and white, but all emblems of a party's visceral craving to regain power. Most important, they are ever more frequently young people. Herein lies another astonishing reversal of this already astonishing election year. Traditionally, the ranks of America's missing voters have been thick with the young. But when they have bothered to vote, they have been a veritable bedrock of Republican majorities since 1980.

Much of Ronald Reagan's political genius lay in his paradoxical ability to appeal to a generation of people young enough to be his grandchildren. By huge margins, the 18-24 age group preferred him to Carter and Mondale. In 1988, that inherited, in- built advantage was enough to see Bush glide into office. But over the last four years he has squandered it, like so much else.

Today's young are switching allegiances in droves. Among these first and second-time voters, Bill Clinton has a Reagan-size lead. The campus of the University of Richmond, Virginia, host of the second debate on 15 October, is notoriously among the most conservative in the US.

But even there, Clinton is ahead of Bush by 46 to 42 per cent, if the findings of that week's edition of the university newspaper are to be believed. The reasons are obvious: lack of jobs and fear of unemployment, the worry that, for the first time in American history, the future is less bright than the present or past. Then there is the Bush sell-out to the far right on abortion, family values and the rest, epitomised by that gruesome Republican convention in Houston, which all but excommunicated unbelievers.

The net product is equally clear: one of those quarter-century grindings of the tectonic plates of American politics of which Bill Clinton - to an extent I suspect surprises even the candidate himself - seems to have become a catalyst. Five months ago however, we divined none of this. In hindsight we should have, but I am delighted to admit the failure. Whatever the result on 3 November, the American political process is already the winner.