A television reporter outside the Senator Boxer event (Feb. 2007)

…And not just about developments in naked opera.

I wrote this article while I was traveling around the US at the beginning of last year. It was published in Sydney University’s student paper in March, despite the slightly haughty over-explanation of basic issues in US politics.

Can’t wait till ’08:

[Between Castles] looks toward the next US Presidential election.

The landslide victory of the Democrats in the midterm elections late last year signalled not only a shift in public attitude towards George W Bush and the war in Iraq, but also a dramatic change in the distribution of political power in the US. While the next presidential election is almost two years away, strategists in Washington are already turning their attention to what effect this change in political climate might have on the next big race.

I arrived in the US in early February this year, on the eve of Barack Obama’s announcement of his contention for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The next day thousands of supporters gathered for his address at the old state capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, where President Lincoln had delivered his famous “house divided” speech almost a hundred and fifty years before.

Of course President Lincoln was a Republican, urging the nation to unite and overcome conflict over the issue of slavery, but it was this very history and attitude of bipartisanship that Obama frequently strives to evoke in his politics. Obama was catapulted to fame with his speech on that same issue at the Democratic national convention in 2004; “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue Sates, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.”

The day after Obama’s announcement John Howard appeared on the Sunday program and didn’t hesitate to offer his opinion on the newly declared candidate; “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.” It was an uncharacteristic gaffe for otherwise bland diplomat Howard and indicated just how seriously he takes his personal relationship with George Bush.

Unsurprisingly Howard’s amateur foray into terrorist psychology was not appreciated in the US, where the Democrats now hold majority control over the legislative branch of government. Obama downplayed the situation, stating that he was flattered that he was gathering enough attention to already be under attack from foreign heads of state. With the middle name Hussein and a last name evocative of ‘Osama’, Obama is not unfamiliar with defending himself against baseless claims of that sort.

While in Arizona I took the opportunity to take a straw poll of some friends. “I don’t know much about Barack Obama, but I’m not going to vote for him,” one registered Democrat told me, “and not Hillary either.” No one I spoke to was even planning to vote for a Democrat.

Republican John McCain, Senior Senator for Arizona, isn’t just well-liked in the Southwest. The Senator has established nation-wide popularity from his many years of public service and with the respect gained for the many years of torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain is well known for his honesty and for his frequent uncensored, often offensive comments, such as calling Chelsea Clinton ugly and fellow Republican Senator Chuck Grassley a “fucking jerk”.

McCain has managed to keep a safe distance from the imploding Bush administration, and is among the more moderate possible Republican candidates. However, if elected in 2008 McCain (at 72) would be America’s oldest ever President.

The likely candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain have formed an unlikely friendship – McCain has spoken in vague support of Clinton’s presidential ambitions. “I think we have very different views on the conduct of the presidency. But she works hard as a senator, and I think she knows her issues”. Reportedly the two even engaged in a vodka drinking competition on a congressional trip to Estonia.

Drinking games aside, it is impossible to overlook Hillary Clinton, the candidate who would seem to have everything necessary to wrap up the nomination; overwhelming name recognition, high standing in the Democratic party and significant financial backing. Indeed, Clinton seems to have everything but the popularity required to win the general election, as she continues to receive high unfavourable ratings in news polls, and is consequently beginning to face considerable competition from other high profile Democrats.

It took a Supreme Court ruling to keep Al Gore out of the White House after his last run for President in 2000. Somehow Gore has managed to distance himself from his image as bumbling vice-president to Bill Clinton, when he famously claimed that he “took the initiative in creating the internet” and stated that “women were equal, if not more so” to men. Gore has now repositioned himself confidently for another presidential run – as both an environmentalist and movie star. With the recent documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring him as narrator, bagging him an Academy Award, and providing a decent chunk of spin about his political life so far.

Gore is noncommittal at this stage about his plans. “I haven’t completely ruled out running for president again in the future but I don’t expect to” he stated last year while promoting his film in Sydney, but he highlighted the depth of his experience even through this denial “It’s just the internal shifting of gears after being in politics almost 30 years.” Unlike many of the other candidates, Gore has the advantage of being well enough known to avoid early campaigning all together and step into the race later should the opportunity present itself.

I was in San Francisco when I found out that Obama was appearing at a fundraiser for California Senator Barbara Boxer that evening. I headed out half an hour before the event was scheduled to start and tried to stake-out the building in the hope of catching a glimpse of the candidate. Loitering outside the car park, I eventually became intimidated by the glares of secret service personnel and made my way back to the front entrance to stand beside a small crowd of anxious Democrat supporters clutching autograph books and cameras at the ready.

Suddenly the professional photographers beside us grabbed their lenses and tripods to rush around to the back entrance of the hotel. Word was that Obama was already inside and Senator Boxer was arriving. Around me Obama’s fans murmured to each other in disappointment. “Where is he?” one elderly lady asked her friend. “I think he’s hiding” the other replied. Subject to this much attention more than 18 months out from the general election, who could blame him?

Photographer, San Francisco Feb. 2007