by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK -- As George W. Bush formally accepted the presidential nomination from his Republican Party and protesters rallied outside the party's convention hall, it seemed that the polarization of politics in the United States was complete.
The protests, which continued here all this week, swelled to hundreds of thousands last Sunday, with the huge U.S. troop presence in Iraq a focal point of demonstrators' anger at the administration. That opposition also raised the question of whether Democratic contender John Kerry's backing for the war will cost him a significant number of votes.
The four-day convention could have been taking place on another planet, what with unprecedented security ensuring that delegates were vacuum-sealed away from the boisterous crowds outside, and speakers like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani exhorting the party faithful: "Thank God for President Bush!"
The race is one of the most closely fought in recent memory, with polls showing at most a one or two-point spread between Bush and Kerry.
It is the tiny percentage of undecided voters that the candidates are hoping to win over, the majority of them in what have been dubbed "swing states" -- any state where the margin of victory between Democrats and Republicans was less than 10 percent in the last election.
The latest surveys show that slightly more than half of Americans believe that Iraq was "not worth going to war over," and 58 percent say that Bush lacks a clear exit strategy. A tiny margin trusts Kerry over Bush on the issue of Iraq, but the reverse was true when respondents were asked to weigh the candidates on the "war on terror," with 48 to 45 percent saying Bush would do a better job.
However, some argue that these numbers fail to reflect a large number of people who profoundly oppose the war and may opt for an independent candidate like Ralph Nader, who won three million votes in the 2000 election and says he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq.
"I personally know scores of people -- including those in swing states -- who say they will not under any circumstances vote for Kerry unless and until he comes out against the war," said Stephen Zunes, chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.
"Furthermore, Kerry's strident support for rightist Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's colonization and annexation schemes in the West Bank, his recent denunciation of the International Court of Justice, and his support for continued large-scale arms transfers to human rights violators show that his support for Bush's invasion of Iraq was no aberration."
"His embrace of such a right-wing militarist agenda has so alienated the Democratic Party base that it could very well cost him the election," Zunes added.
Kerry has accused Bush of misleading Congress and the nation in his push to invade Iraq, but also insists he does not regret his Senate vote authorizing the president to go to war. He says that if elected he would seek to broaden international support for the occupation of Iraq, for example by bringing in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but would not withdraw from the embattled nation.
But while a few anti-war voters will inevitably be alienated by Kerry's positions, some observers believe that the desire to get Bush out of office will end up trumping any distaste for the Democratic candidate when people go the polls Nov. 2.
"My hope is that those backing Kerry will not switch to Bush because of Kerry's position on the war in Iraq," said Chris Brauchli, a Colorado lawyer and columnist. "The war in Iraq will come to an end but Bush's legacy, if re-elected, will outlast the lifetimes of many of us in ways too numerous to mention."
The Republican leadership has taken great pains to present a moderate face at their convention, inviting speakers who support such issues as gay rights and the right to abortion -- although the platform adopted on the first day repeated calls for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and Bush has strongly favored policies embraced by conservative Christians, like "abstinence education" in schools.
These issues, as much as the war, may be a deciding factor in who emerges victorious from the polls, some say.
"The reinscription and deepening of the religious right into the heart of American politics is as critical to reject as Kerry's foreign policy. It is also a greater immediate reality for many than the war, and people are finally, I think, connecting the dots between the two," said Ananya Mukherjee Reed, a political science professor at York College in Toronto, Canada.
"I think immigrants, people of color, women, Arab-Americans or other Muslim Americans might feel that Kerry would at least not continue the kind of desecularization of the state and politics that the Bush administration has unleashed," she added.
Still, some believe that Kerry will making a major tactical error if he takes the anti-Bush vote for granted, and expressed particular disappointment that the Democratic contender is distancing himself from his opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
By avidly pursuing a small number of voters in the political center, Kerry risks low voter turnout among progressives who have become disenchanted with the two-party system, says Roger Smith, who teaches journalism at Ithaca College in New York.
"The larger issue is that the Democratic Party has never, in its whole history, allowed the American public a referendum on an ongoing war by nominating an anti-war candidate," said Smith.
"That's a very bracing comment on the level of democracy we have in the United States. Could Kerry be the first? Sure he could, if he had the courage. But he seems to have boxed himself in."
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