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Kerry, the Yankee muchacho

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    Bush against Bush 

    ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico - The mother of a New Mexico air force pilot has been responsible for one of the biggest scoops of the 2004 election campaign: she managed to extract from John Kerry his own strategy to deal with the Iraq debacle.

    Kerry, the Democratic senator running for the US presidency in November, answered that he would immediately ask for international support - meaning the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab world; "un-Americanize" the occupation; and internationalize all decisions. If this is not a mere campaign promise, it means the end of the neo-con agenda for Iraq. Talking to reporters later, Kerry added: "I think our troops are in greater risk today, because of the lack of leadership, frankly. I think the president has made some enormous mistakes in respect to Iraq. The intelligence, the mistakes in strategy, decisions, timing ..."

    According to Vietnam War historian Marilyn Young, Iraq is now "Vietnam on crack cocaine". Until this exchange with the mother of the air force pilot, Kerry was practically mum on Iraq, venturing only to say he was in favor of sending more troops and keeping them on the ground until Iraq, maybe by an intervention from Divine Providence against imperial hubris, becomes "stable, peaceful, tolerant and free".

    Kerry, along with Vanessa, one of his daughters, came to New Mexico's capital this Tuesday on a Champion Airlines flight for a whirlwind one-hour tour of an elementary school, before leaving in a hurry to Los Angeles. In a blue blazer, khaki slacks, and blue checkered shirt with no tie, he posed for the inevitable photo with a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran, Jim Buhaug. He signed Kerry posters at the airport. And then he spoke to about 100 fans at Longfellow Elementary School. He's still stiff and as sexy as a spreadsheet on the campaign trail. Wife Teresa "Ketchup Queen" Heinz Kerry should at least have taught him a few charming words in Spanish. And somebody from Kerry's California staff should urgently consider hiring a Hollywood public relations diva.

    Kerry argued that the No Child Left Behind Act, President George W Bush's education plan, has led to a national high school dropout rate of a million kids a year. Kerry instead proposes fewer students in each class in high school, mentors for middle school students, better salaries for teachers, and heavy investment in a National Education Trust Fund in order actually to find the money for Bush's plan. Before leaving for California, Kerry said, "The most critical issue now is putting America back to work." Bush, meanwhile, was flipping pancakes in the middle of Ohio, trying to convince a bleak army of blue-collar voters in a crucial industrial swing state that he can deliver better news for the ailing manufacturing sector for the next four years.

    And then it was back to muckracking. The Bush campaign insists Kerry voted in favor of both the war on Iraq and the No Child Left Behind Act. Kerry added: "These guys have spent 70 million bucks to, quote, destroy me. That was their goal. They haven't done it."

    Viva Bush
    Albuquerque is a sister city with Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. They're both close to the desert, but as a tribute to US democracy, any talk of elections in the Central Asian gas republic implies a death sentence, courtesy of the Turkmenbashi, supreme ruler for life. On the other hand, a liter of gasoline in Turkmenistan costs one-fifth the price of a bottle of mineral water. Albuquerque - boasting an inevitable armada of sport-utility vehicles - is alarmed by the price of gas. A US gallon of regular unleaded is now US$1.80 (47.6 cents per liter) in New Mexico, a new state record. It's still peanuts compared with Los Angeles, for example, where about $2.30 a gallon is the norm. The Saudis may soon have to come to Bush's rescue - as the June contract price for a barrel of North Sea Brent crude has reached almost $36 in New York.

    New Mexico illustrates to perfection the education-and-jobs nightmare afflicting millions of Americans. Those who succeed in graduating from high school and getting a degree at the pleasant adobe-filled University of New Mexico in Albuquerque can only find a county or school job if they are part of a politically well-connected family. The other option is to do technical support work at Los Alamos, the largest weapons-of-mass-destruction lab in the United States. The bottom of the scale - for those who at least finished high school - is to join the military and be deployed in Iraq, as this correspondent found out in the Sunni triangle. But northern New Mexico right now is strongly anti-war - and this includes even employees of Los Alamos.

    New Mexico will be a crucial swing state come November, along with Ohio, Michigan and Florida. At the Flying Star Cafe in Albuquerque - southwest chic, excellent newsstand, great huevos rancheros - the feeling is New Mexico may be one of two or three states actually to decide the election. In 2000, Bush lost to Al Gore in New Mexico by only 366 votes.

    The New Mexico headquarters of Bush's campaign - staffed with six people since March 18 - is a supreme model of organization. One of the maps on the walls is a labyrinth of color-coded pins where pro-Bush sentiment is carefully recorded. Kerry still has no HQ and no staff. In all key states with a heavy Hispanic vote - Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida - Bush has HQs, has a full working team, and has run a barrage of television ads in Spanish. The Kerry campaign has done nothing - yet. The problem is obvious: lack of money. Kerry's HQs in these states will open only in late May. He will eventually launch his own TV ads in Spanish. But Armando Gutierrez, a political consultant in Albuquerque who produced TV ads in Spanish for both Bill Clinton and Gore is very worried: "He will have to be heavily sold as John Kerry. If people don't have a clear reason to vote for him, they'd rather stay home."

    By contrast, only one day before the whirlwind Kerry visit, the "Viva Bush" campaign was alive and kicking in the pleasant, low-key, fake-adobe low-rises of downtown Albuquerque. "Viva Bush" is rapidly spreading this week to Arizona, Nevada and California. Bush has actively courted the Hispanic vote since he was governor of Texas. His mangled Spanish is very effective - occasionally more so than his English. Both his doctor and his lawyer are Hispanics.
    To have any chance of winning the Hispanic vote, Kerry will have to convince people like former US treasurer Rosario Marin from California: "He doesn't know us," she says, before launching on an autograph binge of $1 bills. "Viva Bush" events are materializing as pretty informal affairs: in Albuquerque, the speeches were followed by a mariachi band playing ultra-corny tunes.

    Enter 'the gutsy gov'
    New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson may become one of the key deciders of the 2004 election. He is the only Hispanic governor in the United States. He is also on record saying his political action group, Moving America Forward, will support Kerry among Hispanic voters everywhere, but especially in several key Western and mountain states. Richardson will chair the Democratic National Convention in July, in Boston. Widely tipped to be chosen as Kerry's running mate, he has repeatedly dismissed those rumors, saying he is concentrated on finishing his term as governor.

    Richardson has plenty of assets: a former energy secretary under Clinton, ambassador to the UN, proven international experience. New Mexicans are happy with their progressive governor. He cut income taxes; attracted investment to New Mexico; spent heavily on public schools; is an impassioned defender of the environment; and is working to give New Mexico a leading role in alternative energy production. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance calls him "the gutsy gov" because of his opposition to plans by Yates Petroleum, HEYCO and Burlington - all of them major Bush donors - to drill one of America's wildest grasslands, Otero Mesa. Richardson seems to have aligned himself with national conservation instead of oil development. According to a recent poll by the Albuquerque Journal among New Mexico Democrats, Richardson scores 78 percent on popularity, against 55 percent for Kerry and 44 percent for Bush.

    The US population is about 12.5 percent Hispanic (in New Mexico it's a staggering 42 percent). The majority of the Hispanic vote - currently only 7 percent of the US total - is historically Democrat. In 2000, 61 percent voted for Gore and 38 percent for Bush, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. For 2004, Bush strategists are aiming for 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. It's not far-fetched, and Democrats know it: Republican Arnold "Gubernator" Schwarzenegger is extremely popular among California Hispanic voters. Charming-as-a-gas-pump Kerry could do worse than start practicing his "hasta la vista, baby" routines.

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  • May 7, 2004

    All over but the hard work 
    (Mar 3,  '04) 

    The new JFK 
    (Feb 11,  '04)

    The wrong side of history
    (Feb 11, '04)


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