The debates are over. Now the US election is a struggle between fear and reason

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The Independent Online

Instant polls tell some, but not all, of the story. It will be another few days before we know the real impact of the third and final televised debate on the race for the US presidency. Early indications are, however, that Senator John Kerry has edged ahead, though not far enough to take him beyond the couple of percentage points that constitute the polls' standard margin of error. Effectively, American voters are facing a scenario all too familiar from four years ago: a dead heat in which every vote will count.

Instand polls tell some, but not all, of the story. It will be another few days before we know the real impact of the third and final televised debate on the race for the US presidency. Early indications are, however, that Senator John Kerry has edged ahead, though not far enough to take him beyond the couple of percentage points that constitute the polls' standard margin of error. Effectively, American voters are facing a scenario all too familiar from four years ago: a dead heat in which every vote will count.

The next two and a half weeks will be a marathon of cross-continent campaigning, stump speeches, mass rallies, vicious television advertising and probably dirty tricks. It will be the sort of trial by energy and bluster, guile and dollars that makes American politics so exciting to Europeans, and so alien as well. We have entered the last, and decisive, lap of what had seemed a perpetual campaign.

That the 2004 race has become a contest at all owes much to the superior debating skills of John Kerry, but also to an electoral tradition where such skills count. These televised duels are not only a key element of the campaign ordeal, they are a qualification for the country's highest office. Any US president, perhaps almost any national leader these days, needs to be able to perform at least competently on television. We may like it or not, but familiarity with this mass medium and confidence in using it to convey a message are essential skills. They are doubly essential for the leader of a country that spans several time-zones and, by virtue of its wealth and power, bestrides the world. It is a form of electoral combat we should adopt over here.

Mr Kerry's wide expertise and long Senate experience pitched against George Bush's personal appeal and down-home verbal fluency made this year's debates some of the most satisfactory for many years, perhaps even since presidential debating began. For all the forest of rules, we witnessed genuine exchanges, genuine passion and genuine conflicts of ideas. If the final bout on Wednesday night disappointed, it was only because the first two had surprised with the spontaneity of their cut and thrust. This week, both candidates were doing their best to play safe; too much was at stake.

Less than sparkling though the third encounter might have been, however, both campaigns are right when they argue that this year's election is among the most important in living memory, for a whole host of reasons. There are the divisions that the ideologically driven Bush administration has opened up in America; the widening gap between rich and poor and the pressing social and health problems it has brought in its wake. There is the status of the US as the world's sole superpower and, of course, the pursuit of the "war on terror" in the aftermath of 11 September and the supposedly pre-emptive war in Iraq.

No one who watched any of the televised debates can say that Americans have no choice when they go to vote on 2 November. George Bush and John Kerry represent, more classically than many aspiring presidents of recent years, the two poles of old-style US politics. For his own constituency, Mr Bush has a point when he castigates his challenger as a tax-and-spend liberal - or, as he expressed it so neatly, as someone "sitting on the far left bank" of the American mainstream.

Mr Kerry, for his part, is right to take Mr Bush to task for favouring rich over poor with his tax cuts, for losing more jobs than any president since the Depression, and for turning a projected $5 trillion surplus into a $5 trillion deficit that future generations will have to make good. He is right, too, to take Mr Bush to task for every mismanaged aspect of a costly war entered into rashly, without justification.

From this side of the Atlantic, Mr Kerry's arguments look conclusive. The one giant imponderable is whether Mr Bush's promise to keep Americans safe will trump everything else. In the days that remain, Mr Kerry must apply all his efforts and all the force of his arguments, to ensuring fear does not prevail.

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