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Friday, 12 September 2008

12 September 2008

PHOENIX, ARIZONA -- A couple of nights ago, I was at a party of highly motivated political women here in Phoenix, Arizona. This is the state which John McCain represents in the US Senate, so perhaps you’d expect these female Arizona politicos to be thrilled by his decision to appoint a woman, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running mate.

In fact, not so. Because these women were Democrats, and as one of them told me: “It’s not just about biology; it’s also about ideology.” To them, Sarah Palin is anathema, because she is pro-life, and they are pro-choice. (Or if you prefer, she is anti-abortion, and they believe in a woman’s right to choose.)

These are strange days in the Presidential election campaign. There’s been more talk this week about lipstick than about the economy or Iraq; more coverage of a vice-presidential candidate who has remained unavailable to reporters than to the other half of her party’s ticket, the man who would be President.

(Just to put the record straight about what Barack Obama meant when he spoke of “putting lipstick on a pig”: Sarah Palin is the lipstick, he insists, the pig is John McCain’s policies. He didn’t mean Mrs Palin is a pig.)

I’ve spent the past two weeks first in Missouri, then in Illinois, and now here in Arizona. And I have a few conclusions to report to you, admittedly wholly unscientific and totally impressionistic.

First, this election really is engaging people: everyone I’ve had contact with -- in shops, hotels, on the streets – has wanted to talk about it. (One exception: a young man here in Phoenix who within the last few months has lost his job, been left by his wife, and is now having his home repossessed by the bank … he told me he had other things on his mind more important than the election.)

Second, the people who support John McCain cite his political experience and his military background as the main reasons: his specific policies seem to have made little impact. And those who prefer Barack Obama say it’s because he inspires them as a new face and a new voice: they speak of him with the same reverence that McCain supporters adopt when they speak of their candidate.

Third, the Iraq war is just not an issue. Over the past week, I have had several hours of in- depth conversations with voters on both sides of the debate; not one of them has mentioned Iraq. (And if you heard our programme from Rolla, Missouri, last Friday, you may remember that no one in the audience there raised it either.)

Fear of terrorism is an issue, the economy is an issue, and for some, abortion is an issue. Both John McCain and Sarah Palin are vehemently anti-abortion (that’s why the pregnancy of Mrs Palin’s 17-year-old daughter made such an impact). Some women who desperately wanted a chance to vote for Hillary Clinton will never be able to vote for Sarah Palin – but the opinion polls suggest that many white working class women in particular are being won over.

A word of warning about those polls: many of them are showing relatively small shifts, often within the margin of error, and there is some evidence to suggest that the mood, when it is shifting, is being heavily influenced by daily media coverage.

So my advice is: don’t jump to any conclusions just yet. Yes, John McCain is doing better in the polls than he was three months ago – but if you look at the state-by-state breakdown of how he and Senator Obama stand, it still looks extraordinarily tight.

The first of my documentaries for the BBC World Service – “My Senator, My Vote” – will be broadcast next Wednesday. The second will be on air the following week.

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