Cash, candidates aplenty in presidential race

CAMPAIGN FOR UNITED STATES PRESIDENCY

Hillary and Obama lead Democrats in early start to race with many firsts.

HISTORY is in the making in the race for the White House in 2008.

It is a campaign of many firsts, underscored by one predominant theme: The war in Iraq. It will be the first time in 80 years that neither the incumbent nor his vice-president will be taking part in a presidential election. Nearly two years before Americans go to the polls, campaigning has already begun in earnest.

Never before have candidates openly declared their intentions so early in the game.

The field has also never been so crowded, and so disparate. It throws up the possibility of the country voting for its first female, black or even Mormon president.

The polls are also likely to be the most expensive ever.

Mrs Hillary Clinton, 59, has the largest war chest so far and is also the first to forgo public financing due to spending limits.

The Clinton camp has declared it can raise much more than the US$150 million (S$230 million) or so the system would provide for her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and election.

Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, a leading expert on US electoral politics, said Mrs Clinton could amass up to US$300 million in funds.

“The amount of money going to be spent in this election will be off the charts,” he told The Straits Times. “It will easily go way beyond US$1 billion for all the candidates combined.”

That will be another first.

Mrs Clinton has other formidable strengths: Vast political machinery and a close-knit circle of advisers drawn from previous administrations – including her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

But are Americans ready for their first female wartime president? She may also have difficulty appealing to the conservatives in the South and Americans who do not want another bout of Clinton years.

And she will have to look over her shoulder at another Democrat portraying himself as a fresh face capable of leading a new generation.

At 45, African-American Barack Obama, a charismatic Harvard-trained lawyer, is the youngest in the Democratic field for the primaries.

“I know I have not spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” he said last Saturday, when he announced his presidential bid. “But I have been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

He gained recognition with the publication of two best-selling books and was elected to the Senate in 2004.

But experience and race might well become an albatross. Are voters ready to elect someone with just two years in the Senate? And will conservative whites want a black president?

If the Democratic front runners are no shoo-in, there is still hope for the Republicans.

The former mayor of New York City, Mr Rudy Giuliani, runs either first or second in every poll. The Sept 11 hero has emerged as the leading Republican candidate despite the recent leak of a detailed campaign plan that suggests he is not organised enough for a presidential race.

He faces other challenges. The “pros” in his issue profile – pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control – are a complete mismatch with the Republican conservative voters who tend to dominate the nominating process.

Yet, he has overtaken Arizona Senator John McCain, a long-time front runner in the Republican primaries for president.

Mr McCain can clearly draw support from moderates and capture swing votes from political independents. Many Republicans still see the Vietnam War hero as the best hope for a divided party.

Like Mrs Clinton, he draws much of his strength from organisation – and money.

Some estimate that he could draw US$200 million for his election campaign.

But he continues to rile the party right. More importantly, his unyielding support for the Iraq war could haunt him at the polls.

Still, Republican candidates such as Mr Giuliani and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, all support President George W. Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq.

The Democratic candidates unanimously deplore Mr Bush’s handling of the war, and Mrs Clinton has vowed to end it if she were to become president.

But that unity breaks down on other questions such as whether Congress should block funds for a troop increase and whether Iraq should be partitioned.

It will be a field of more than 10 presidential hopefuls.

It is early days yet. But the campaign is already off to a blistering start.

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