Race is on in the USA
In just five days, on January 5, 2008, American voters will begin the formal selection of presidential candidates for the two major political parties with the Iowa caucuses. Then, over the next month the presidential hopefuls will contest in a grueling series of primaries and caucuses which culminates in Super Tuesday on Feb 5, when 28 states will select candidates from both parties and in two more only Democrats will indicate their preference. The actual designation of the presidential and vice presidential nominees who will contest in the national election won't be made until the Democratic and Republican conventions some time during the summer, but by Super Tuesday, and likely well before, it will almost certainly be decided.
The common wisdom says that after eight years of Republican George W Bush, the war in Iraq, a worsening economy and a dimming of the American star around the globe, the Democrats are a shoo-in for the White House, but in fact there are several scenarios that could make it a close race. Foremost of these is the perception of a heightened terrorist threat, or worse, another major terrorist attack inside US borders, or possibly even outside. The Republicans are still regarded by many as the most competent in security matters. The Bush administration has been willing to surrender personal liberties and accepted international codes of humanitarian conduct in the name of security, and in the last election successfully painted those who disagreed as "soft on terror".
In fact there is little evidence to suggest that these trade-offs have actually made the country any more secure, and a great deal that indicates they have severely damaged America's reputation around the world. There is also evidence that Americans are losing the hysteria surrounding terrorism that accompanied 9-11 and are seeking a more pragmatic approach to root it out, one which does not require the abandonment of basic values.
Nevertheless, security will be a major issue in the presidential contest, and possibly the major issue, depending on the state of the economy. Any candidate who can't sound convincingly tough, Republican or Democrat, has little chance to become president.
But in all likelihood the common wisdom is correct, because when you get right down to it, Americans on the whole seem as ready for a symbolic change in Washington as does the rest of the world.
That means that the next president of the United States will probably be New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama or North Carolina Senator John Edwards, all of whom are running well in Iowa.
A Boston Globe article last week implied that part of the appeal of both Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama is that they represent such a symbolic change - she would be the first female, while he would be the first black, president of the US, and that this was helping to propel their campaigns because many Americans desperately want to send a signal to the rest of the world that the past eight years are an anomaly.
Ironically, it is the white Southern man, John Edwards, who is probably the most progressive of the bunch. His campaign message is all about addressing the growing inequality in wealth and opportunity in America, something which should also resonate well around the world. And, the recent flap about a labour union-funded advertising blitz on his behalf not-withstanding, he backs up his principles by not accepting money from corporate lobbyists, an obvious first step to eliminating improper influence by special interest groups. In the US the frontrunner in the primary season becomes the presidential candidate and the vice presidential candidate is often picked from the rest of the field. Senator Edwards may or may not be the Democratic candidate in 2008, but it would be a shame to lose his voice in the campaign.