US Presidential Elections: Clinton basks in landslide limelight

`One unpredictable factor is turnout after a dreary and static campaign that has produced few ideas and less passion'
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Today, finally, it ends, as perhaps 100 million Americans take part in the only opinion poll that really matters, casting their presidential votes after what has been among the longest, certainly the costliest, and some would say the most corrupted election campaign in recent American history.

The winner, virtually beyond doubt, will be Bill Clinton over Bob Dole, his Republican challenger. But what may be best remembered of an eminently forgettable contest is the $1.6bn (pounds 1bn) that was spent on it, the row over seamy Democratic fundraising practices with which it ended, and the sheer length of the process.

Hardly had Mr Clinton dethroned George Bush on 3 November 1992 than manoeuvring among prospective Republican contenders for this year began. With a bunched primary schedule, it was said, an early start was essential. Thus it was that on 20 January 1995 nine of them addressed a New Hampshire party dinner, the quasi-official start of hostilities for the state's key primary, held a full 13 months later.

Mr Dole would lose there to Pat Buchanan, and would be defeated in Delaware and Arizona by Steve Forbes, the publishing magnate. But the uncertainty vanished in South Carolina on 2 March, after which the Senate majority leader won every single primary. By 19 March he had mathematically locked up the nomination. But President Clinton has proved an infinitely tougher target.

Nothing Mr Dole has tried - resignation from the Senate, the choice of Jack Kemp as running mate, a sweetly choreographed convention, a 15 per cent tax cut, and finally broadsides against the Clinton character - has made any difference. In March Mr Clinton had a double digit lead. He still had one yesterday; 16 points according to a CBS/New York Times poll, 12 according to NBC/Wall Street Journal, 16 points according to CNN/USA Today. This margin translates at the least into resounding victory, possibly a landslide.

The 73-year-old Mr Dole may be breaking endurance records and wrecking his voice with his 96-hour "Sleepless somewhere in the USA" scamper around the country, which took him to six states yesterday alone before a last symbolic stop at 3am this morning in Independence, Missouri.

The town is home of Harry Truman, the patron saint of every doomed presidential contender since, thanks to his 1948 upset win over Thomas Dewey. But this pilgrimage will almost certainly have as little impact on the outcome as Mr Clinton's final five-state burst that will take him back to Little Rock at 4.00am, or the $3m that the Reform Party's Ross Perot was spending on 30- and 60-minute election-eve "infomercials" on the major networks.

The one unpredictable factor is turnout, after a dreary and static campaign that has produced few ideas and less passion. Despite the entreaties of the candidates and get-out-the-vote drives by everyone from the unions and women's organisations to the Christian right and the National Rifle Association, turnout may be well down on the 55 per cent of 1992, and could drop below 50 per cent.Normally low turnout aids Republicans but in 1996 perhaps not. Surveys have shown that the most motivated voting groups are the old, women and environmentalists, all Democratic constituencies scared stiff by the Republican Congress. They might give Mr Clinton victories in usually Republican states such as Florida and Arizona.

Barring an upset unprecedented in history, therefore, the real suspense lies in the battle for Congress - which in the case of the House may not even be decided today, after a court row forcing run-off elections in a dozen Texas districts in December.

But the betting is that the Republicans will cling to control of both Senate and House, albeit by a whisker.

Meanwhile a record 90 state initiatives will be on today's ballots across the country. Californians will vote on ending affirmative action and legalising marijuana for medical purposes. Fourteen states will tackle term limits again, while in another seven states, voters will consider measures to legalise gambling.