A giant step into the unknown

WHILE Fleet Street and the Westminster `village' become obsessed with the handover of power in Downing Street, a more meaningful battle looms across the Atlantic.

By Graham Dines

WHILE Fleet Street and the Westminster `village' become obsessed with the handover of power in Downing Street, a more meaningful battle looms across the Atlantic.

For the first time in 80 years, there will be no president running for re-election or serving vice president seeking his party's nomination when Americans go to the polls in November 2008. President George W.Bush is prevented by the constitution from seeking a third term in office and Vice President Dick Cheney's age and health are against him running.

More than a dozen Democrats and an equal number of Republicans are mentioned as possible candidates for the White House. On the Republican side, Arizona senator John McCain is the highest-profile politician considering a run. For the Democrats, New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton - wife of the disgraced Bill - is viewed as her party's front-runner.

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“Both of these candidates will be so strong in the polls and fundraising that the other candidates will have a difficult time getting oxygen,” says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist.

Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani is popular in his party, but his support for abortion and gay rights would be an obstacle in Republican primaries, where born again Christians and the “moral majority” have a huge influence, especially in the Bible Belt.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's name has surfaced repeatedly, and although she denies any interest, it would be an intriguing contest if she were to go head-to-head with Senator Clinton in November 2008.

Mrs Clinton is not a shoo-in for the Democrat candidacy. Although she has been cautious on her position about the Iraq war, she needs to energise the Democrats' liberal wing and convince her party she can win a general election.

Former vice president Al Gore claims he has no plans to run, but his tour promoting his global warming movie An Inconvenient Truth has a campaign flavour about it and has raised his stock in some Democratic circles. Other Democrats who seem to be weighing up their chances in the primary contests are Massachusetts senator. John Kerry, the party's presidential nominee in 2004; John Edwards, Kerry's running mate; Indiana senator Evan Bayh; former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle; and retired general Wesley Clark.

The last time American politics entered such a step into the unknown was in 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge surprised everyone by deciding not to seek another term. His vice president Charles Dawes didn't try for the nomination and Republicans turned to Herbert Hoover, the popular and respected commerce department secretary who went on to defeat the Democrats' nominee, New York governor Al Smith.

In 1952 after Harry Truman opted not to run for re-election, the 70 year-old vice-president Alben Barkley did try for the nomination. However the Democrats nominated Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Republican nominee, General Dwight Eisenhower.

Party bosses used to pick nominees in “smoke filled rooms.” But by 1972, rules for both parties changed to put more power in the hands of voters through primaries and caucuses.

Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar at Colorado College, says the lack of any incumbent president or vice-president seeking the nomination could lead to wild swings of voter sentiment and an unpredictable campaign. “To have that kind of chaos on both sides is really quite destabilising.”

A CAMPAIGN to end “Ghost Town Britain” has won the backing of Bury St Edmunds Tory MP David Ruffley. The Local Works campaign, whose coalition members include trade associations, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, national environmental groups, unions and social justice organisations, has been formed to back the Government's Sustainable Communities Bill which aims to turn politics upside down and give power to local communities.

The Bill seeks to reverse “Ghost Town Britain” - the continuous closure of thousands of post offices, bank branches, independent shops, local pubs and newsagents. It holds the philosophy that local communities are the experts on their own problems and how to solve them.

Campaign Organiser Ron Bailey said the Bill would give people real power to protect their communities. “What's needed is a bottom-up approach - with local communities deciding what happens at a local level - not a Whitehall top-down approach.”

Mr Ruffley said: “I am concerned by the decline in my constituency and across the country of basic facilities such as Post Offices, newsagents and bank branches, small shops and public facilities which communities vitally need.”

SOUTH Suffolk Tory MP Tim Yeo has asked Communities Ruth Kelly to amend the local government code of conduct, which in its present form prevents councillors from effectively representing the views of their voters

Mr Yeo points out that when the Prime Minister signs a petition regarding the use of animals in medical research, he isn't disqualified from voting on this subject in the House of Commons. But a councillor elected on a pledge to fight unwanted development which threatens the local environment, is disbarred from taking part or voting in any council debate on the issue. “This is unfair and undemocratic,” says the MP.

DEPUTY Prime Minister John Prescott is in a middle of a cat and mouse game with journalists now that MPs have been banned by the Speaker from raising his questions conduct in the Commons chamber.

Strongly defending his contacts with the American billionaire Philip Anschutz, who is involved in plans to build a super casino at the Millennium Dome, Mr Prescott denied in a radio interview any suggestion of improper influence when he and three officials stayed at Mr Anschutz's ranch last year. Mr Prescott refused to be drawn on the rumours circulating on the internet of extramarital affairs other than his admitted fling with diary secretary Tracey Temple.

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