Leading article: Twelve steps to the White House

Both candidates have compromised their best qualities in their choice of running mate. Which can now square the circle?

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Two outstanding candidates, 57 days to go and the opinion polls neck and neck. We offer a 12-step programme on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous for recovering the moral standing of American leadership.

Resolve those contradictions

Barack Obama and John McCain chose running mates who disagree with them on core issues. Joe Biden voted for the invasion of Iraq; Sarah Palin supports drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Iraq issue is essentially historical, although it does not look so clever for Mr Obama to boast about his judgement. Mr McCain, who did not mention climate change in his acceptance speech, has a bigger problem: decisions on energy policy will have to be taken within days of inauguration. He must re-assert his commitment to energy-saving action.

Close the gates

Avoid any controversy that could have the suffix "gate" attached to it. Ms Palin has already fallen victim to that most irritating US cliché, with the so-called troopergate.

Family on parade

If you put your family on the stage, you become accountable for choices that are normally kept private. Mr McCain left his first wife, who was confined to a wheelchair by a car accident; Ms Palin needs to be careful in using her own children to illustrate her fidelity to family values.

Go for a tolerant God

Similarly, if you profess religion in public, you are accountable for policy edicts handed down by the God of your denomination. It might be preferable, in the words of the original 12-step programme, to turn such things over to the care of "God as we understand Him". Mr Obama was impressive in dealing with the rantings of his pastor, but Ms Palin wants creationism taught in schools – in other words, making irrationalism dictate public policy.

Don't overclaim

Do not, even by implication, compare yourself to JFK, Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. Dan Quayle got squashed for that in a 1988 debate.

Be nice to Hillary

The women's issue cuts both ways. Some women will be insulted that Mr McCain expects them to vote for him just because he has a woman on the ticket; others will be insulted that they are expected to vote for Mr Obama because Ms Palin is "pro-life".

Keep away from Bush

Mr Obama and Mr McCain are more respectful of international law than George W. Yet it is Mr Obama that has threatened to bomb Pakistan, while Mr McCain has taken a notable stand against torture. Mr McCain must have been delighted that Gustav gave him the excuse to cancel the President's speech.

Careful with class

Mr Obama still has a problem with his elite image – which is strange, given that his life story, and that of his wife Michelle, is a parable of social mobility. The problem was not solved by choosing Mr Biden as vice-presidential candidate. His blue-collar roots are overstated: his father was a sales representative for Amoco. Ms Palin's persona as a classless "hockey mom" is solid electoral gold.

No plagiarism

Do not imagine that copying the work of others will go unnoticed. Not even speeches by obscure European politicians. (Mr Biden was caught lifting chunks of Neil Kinnock in 1987.)

Hit the comedy shows

The media battlehas moved from the serious Sunday shows to the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Mr Obama is a natural; Ms Palin will be; Messrs McCain and Biden less so.

Forget about race

The polls may overstate Mr Obama's support because of unacknowledged racism. On the other hand, his campaign may mobilise the black vote in southern states in ways not fully reflected in the survey numbers.

The economy, stupid

The 12th step to the White House is to get the economic message right. Mr Obama has flirted with protectionism, while Mr McCain has had the courage to tell laid-off Michigan car workers: "Those jobs ain't coming back."

This election has so far been an uplifting celebration of democracy. Both candidates responded to a mood of reaction against the failed policies of the Bush administration. Now, in their choice of running mates, both have compromised their most attractive qualities for expediency. Obama chose the quintessential Washington insider who went with the herd on Iraq. McCain picked one whose positions on the environment undermine his credibility. Whichever candidate can most convincingly square these circles will deserve to win.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

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