ROLLA, MISSOURI -- I’ve been exploring parts of Missouri this week, in preparation for tonight’s live programme featuring an audience of local voters here in the small town of Rolla (population: 16,000).
Why Rolla? Because it’s simply the closest you can get to the perfect middle American town. Missouri is in the middle of America, culturally and politically if not geographically, and Rolla is in the middle of Missouri. The same number of people live between here and Canada as between here and Mexico; and the same number between here and the Pacific as between here and the Atlantic. So it truly is the middle of middle America.
A few hours ago I was watching John McCain’s speech on the closing night of the Republican party convention. Two things struck me about it: first, it’s obvious that his speech-writers are not close followers of British politics (I don’t think they would have used the phrase “Back to basics” if they’d known how much trouble it got John Major into); and second, voters who want change are now spoilt for choice. Both McCain and Obama are promising bucketloads of it.
Here’s the key passage from McCain’s speech last night. “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption … We're going to change that. We're going to recover the people's trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”
To which the Obama campaign replied: “Tonight, John McCain said that his party was elected to change Washington, but that they let Washington change them. He’s right. He admonished the ‘old, do-nothing crowd’ in Washington, but ignored the fact that he’s been part of that crowd for twenty-six years …”
So you pays your money, and you takes your choice. The reason I’m in Missouri is that voters here have a unique record in choosing winning candidates in Presidential elections. With only one exception, they’ve backed the winner in every election since 1904. So if our audience tonight is a typical cross-section (which, of course, it may not be, since the programme is open to all comers), it should give you a pretty good idea how things stand, now that both parties’ conventions are over.
I don’t want to pre-empt tonight’s programme (we’ll have two local members of Congress on our panel, by the way, and voters will be asking them questions directly – it’s the kind of direct voter interaction you very rarely get a chance to hear), but I can say that over the past few days I’ve met pretty much an equal number of Republicans and Democrats who are convinced they’re going to win here in Missouri in eight weeks’ time.
Local Republicans are genuinely excited by Sarah Palin, the previously unknown Governor of Alaska whom John McCain has chosen as his vice-presidential candidate – and Democrats, especially black Democrats, are every bit as excited about Barack Obama.
So I do hope you’ll be able to tune in to tonight’s programme – and don’t forget that if for any reason you can’t listen at 10 o’clock tonight, you can always catch up via the Listen Again button on our website. It’ll be there for at least the next seven days.
Next week, I’m staying on in the US to make a couple of documentaries for the BBC World Service, but I’ll try to stay in touch anyway.