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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 03:25 GMT 04:25 UK
Weblog: US election road trip - III

BBC News Online reporters Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene have now finished their journey across America to get to the heart of the issues central to this year's election.

Here you can read Kevin's final thoughts from the road.

25 SEPTEMBER :: WASHINGTON DC ::0216 GMT

Miles: 6234
Cups of coffee (cumulative): 54, the final tally

Welcome back to the Beltway bubble! And my head is already reeling from the spin as the war over terrorism debate rages on here in Washington.

John Kerry is saying that George Bush is living in a spin-driven fantasyland with respect to Iraq and has made the country less safe by neglecting the war on terror by attacking Iraq.

And the Republicans have launched a counter-offensive, saying that Democratic questions over the direction in Iraq "give comfort to the enemy".

If you thought the campaign was nasty, just wait as we enter the home stretch.

But this trip and this blog are coming to a close.

I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who sent in comments. They were vital and helped fill in some of the blanks that we couldn't get to in our sprint across America.

I think the comments to the blog answered Jane from London's question about the assault weapons ban.

Thanks to Scott from Kentucky for explaining a pro-gun point of view, and others who explained why the lapse of the ban wasn't going to be an issue in this election.

David in North Carolina who wonders why Americans feel so threatened by terrorism, seeing as other parts of the world have had to deal with it for years.

A quick and partial answer.

In Washington - and I mean the people who live there, not the city as some kind of shorthand for the US government - I think that we have become more accepting of threat of terrorism as a fact of daily life because of the anthrax attacks, the sniper, and repeated terror alerts.

The definition of normal has shifted.

But for most of the rest of the US, the attacks of 11 September 2001 remain an exceptional event in American history.

They shattered a sense of security that people had come to take for granted. As I said, a partial answer, but I just can't stop blogging.

But thanks to you armchair political scientists out there who brought up the shifting demographics of Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder and the pettiness of the 1828 presidential election.

For regular visitors to the blog, keep those comments coming. The BBC always has a venue for them in our Have Your Say features and the Talking Point programme.

Thanks to Posey in Memphis for the invitation for BBQ and a musical tour. Sorry we weren't able to take you up on the offer. We waved as we flew over.

But thanks to everyone along the way for the time and generous welcome. We were overwhelmed with everyone's hospitality.

Big thanks to the Vasquez family and the wonderful care packages from their bakery. I doubt I'll ever have an empanada quite as good.

Just a few final thoughts. Talk about divided America!

A new Time magazine poll says that 43% of those asked think that Dan Rather and CBS made "an honest mistake" when it came to a broadcast questioning President Bush's Vietnam-era military service.

But 40% believe that CBS was deliberately trying to mislead the public, and CBS stations have been overwhelmed with an e-mail campaign calling on Dan Rather to resign.

As I've tried to show, the divisions in America lead people to look at the "facts" and come to very different conclusions.

I hope you've enjoyed it as Richard and I have given you a tour of our country, the United States. It's a big place, and we've only scratched the surface.

Hopefully, Americans, their politics and the election make a little more sense.

I'll see you next week at the presidential debates, but for this blog, this is Kevin Anderson signing off.

24 SEPTEMBER :: CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA :: 1954 GMT

Miles: 6234
Cups of coffee (cumulative): 53, and I'm unlikely to have any more. I am stopping cold turkey so that I can lapse into a restorative coma this weekend.

I'm flying from Tallahassee to Charlotte, North Carolina. There is a new trend in American airports that I want to wholeheartedly endorse: Therapeutic massage.

A woman praying
Religion is more complicated than it may seem to outsiders
Increasingly at airports, I'm seeing a massage therapist sitting amongst the sunglass sellers, magazine shops and food courts.

And fortunately, Tallahassee, although it is a small regional airport, has one as well.

Well worth the $20 price of admission, I could feel the stress and strain of some 25,000 words of the blog melt away.

Now, some more questions.

Jonathan from Melbourne, Australia, writes: "It just seems that the mind set in the US is so fundamentally different to other parts of the Western world - particularly with regard to the intense importance of religion."

I'll point you to Richard's excellent piece that we did in Colorado about religion and politics for the full Monty on the subject.

But let me give you my two cents about what I, as an American in Auntie Beeb's court, think about this.

First off, I think saying there is an "intense importance of religion" is a little bit of overstatement.

Yes, compared with Europe, the US is a very religious country, and I'm sure that the "God bless America" at the end of major speeches by the candidates falls oddly on the European ear.

But the picture is a fair bit more complex than that.

Heck, when Richard and I were driving through Quincy, a relatively small town in western Florida, there was a Hindu temple in a storefront on the main street.

And, in my humble opinion, the power of religious conservatives in US politics is slightly oversold abroad.

They are powerful in as much as they have some very clear issues - abortion and gay marriage being two and some even dig up Biblical justifications for tax cuts and free market capitalism - and they are motivated by those issues, making them reliable voters.

In a closely divided electorate where voter turnout is relatively low, reliable, motivated voters are gold.

Therefore, constituencies such as religious conservatives take on an importance disproportionate to their numbers.

How would Jesus vote?

People's religion might inform their vote but, as Richard's piece highlights, Christian values are a Rorschach test - everyone may see something different.

Some people, such as Jean in Colorado Springs, believe that Christ was the ultimate peace activist and support John Kerry.

Which I guess would be the point of view of Lorna in Seattle who sent a comment into the blog asking: "How do [religious Republicans] reconcile Christian teachings of the downtrodden (Jesus lived with and helped the poor including a prostitute) and policies of the Bush administration that helps the rich get richer and the poorer get poorer?"

Others, like a voter that registration activist Jeremy Bled met in Florida, won't vote for John Kerry because he's "a sinner" who supports abortion and gays.

I'll try to get one more round of questions done before I wrap this up. I've got a few hours on the ground here in Charlotte before my final flight back to Washington.

But, I'm really pleased that the blog readers are answering each other's questions. Great conversation.

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24 SEPTEMBER :: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA :: 1623 GMT

Miles: 5846
Cups of coffee (cumulative): 53

I checked out of the last hotel on this election road trip, and they had copies of Hurricane Jeanne's projected path at the front desk.

"Here we go again," the desk clerk said.

Jeanne is forecast to come up the east coast of Florida and then follow the coast north through the Carolinas before heading out to sea.

Another guy was checking out next to me. He was from Pensacola, about three hours drive west of Tallahassee.

Hurricane Ivan did a number on that town. He had brought his grandmother to Tallahassee to stay because she hadn't had electricity for days.

He said that power was just being restored. When I asked him how bad the damage was, he just shook his head, looked down at his feet, and said: "Real bad."

Redneck shot glasses
Shot glasses explain the redneck hierarchy of inebriation

"We haven't seen that kind of destruction since..." - he paused, trying to remember the last hurricane that had done as much damage.

The hotel clerk finished his sentence, "in a real long time".

The man said that residents were just being allowed back to the beach to survey the damage.

One thing that I've been meaning to write about for a long time is American English and the seemingly infinite variations on the theme based on regional differences.

Being an American working for the BBC, my editors often joke with me that we're separated by a common language.

Heck, even Americans are separated by a common language.

One of the things that Richard and I have noticed is the different regional words for the second person plural.

Everyone is familiar with the southern y'all. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

In some places, y'all is both singular and plural, but in parts of Texas where my brother lives, y'all is actually the singular you.

All y'all refers to a group of people.

For example, if one was heaping disdain on an idea advanced by a group of colleagues, one might say, "All y'all's idea is plain crazy."

However, as Richard and I discovered when talking to one of his former editors, y'all is not a universal second person pronoun. In some areas, the usage is "you 'ens".

And, of course, where Richard and I are from up in Chicago, the second person plural is "youz guys", but the thick Chicago accent is another thing entirely.

There are plenty of examples, but I've got to start my journey back to Washington.

I've got a long layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, so I'll answer some more questions before I sign off when I land in Washington.

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24 SEPTEMBER :: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA :: 0816 GMT

Miles: 5834
Cups of coffee (cumulative): 52

Major hurricane damage is just west of where we are, but when I went out with Richard Chason to follow his voter registration efforts, the Tallahassee native told me about the recent wave of storms.

Charley went through the area quite quickly, and Frances was a relatively weak storm, leaving little damage.

Hurricane sign
Florida will see more storms before hurricane season is over
For Frances, Richard went down to his family's beach house near Alligator Point on Saint Teresa's beach to watch the storm roll in.

"I'm impressed by the power of the storms," he said.

I can understand the draw. My first reporting job was in western Kansas right in tornado alley.

I used to chase storms as part of my job. I saw plenty of funnel clouds, but I never saw a tornado touch down.

When I was there, a tornado a half-mile wide was on the ground for half an hour just south of where I lived.

Fortunately, it just tore up some wheat fields and irrigation equipment.

One of the favourite quotes of my journalistic career came when a sheriff's deputy told me how a storm with grapefruit-sized hail had destroyed his patrol car.

"It looked like a bunch of monkeys took a ball-peen hammer to my car," he said.

Back here in Florida, Ivan made landfall far to the west of Tallahassee, but its effects were still felt in the area.

In Blountstown, some 50 miles west of Tallahassee, Richard said a series of tornados had rolled through town.

"One tornado picked up a mobile home and tossed it into a stand of pine trees," Richard said. Four people were killed.

And as if Florida hasn't seen enough storms, Hurricane Jeanne is projected to make landfall in Florida sometime on Saturday night.

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24 SEPTEMBER :: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA :: 0042 GMT

Miles: 5829
Cups of coffee (cumulative): 50

People have written into the blog telling me to go where people worked and see what they thought about the elections so Richard and I stopped off at the Flying J truck stop just west of Tallahassee to talk to truck drivers.

Truck stops are places along the interstate highway system in the US where drivers of these massive 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks stop for food, diesel fuel, showers and even internet access these days.

In the truckers lounge, we met Terry McCann and Lee Sanford.

Ironically, Terry is originally from Coventry in the UK. Lee hails from Birmingham, but Alabama, not the city up in the Midlands.

Lee Sanford
Trucker Lee Sanford supports Bush's national security policy

Last year, Terry and Lee had taken a leave of absence from their trucking company in the US to drive for Halliburton in Iraq.

Halliburton had wanted them to stay a year, but both of them came back after only six months because of the worsening security situation.

Lee had been back in the US since January of this year, and Terry returned in April.

They hauled military supplies between Nasiriya and Baghdad. The money was good, $2000 a week, but the hours were long, up to 100 hours a week.

And they were constantly being ambushed and shot at with roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, bricks and rocks.

"We were glad to see rocks and bricks," Lee said.

RPG attack

Little children were taught to step in front of the convoys to stop them and set them up for an ambush. "They thought it was a game," he said.

They wore Kevlar body armour, but said there was little they could do. They didn't carry guns, and the Army couldn't protect them.

"We were more of a target because we couldn't shoot back," Lee said.

Terry had an RPG go past the front of his truck, and Lee had a bullet go through his cab.

"The Lord was looking out for me that day," Lee said. While they were there, 49 truckers were killed.

And, of course, there were the kidnappings, the hostage taking.

They were given a small booklet telling them what to do in the event they were abducted, but "they don't care. They will kill you regardless," Lee said.

They were shocked by the poverty there. They used to throw MREs, military meals-ready-to-eat, to children along the roads.

But they had to stop because the wind would blow them under the trucks and children would risk running under the moving trailers to catch them.

And they were shocked by Halliburton's spending there. "The taxpayer would be appalled. Waste, waste, waste", Lee said.

If the truck had a flat tyre, they would bring another truck, and a Humvee would come and blow up the old one so the Iraqis wouldn't get it, he said.

'Long haul'

They both said that Iraqi people were thankful for getting rid of Saddam Hussein but now they want us gone.

"They're waving at you during the day and shooting at you at night," Lee said.

But they don't see the US leaving Iraq anytime soon. "It ain't gonna get any better. We're gonna be there for the long haul," he said.

Lee is not following the elections closely but probably will vote for President Bush.

"I'm still supporting President Bush because of what he has done for national security," he said.

He likes the president, always has, and likes his father and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, too.

Terry, not being an American citizen, can't vote. But if he could, he would probably vote for President Bush too. "He seems more sincere."

23 SEPTEMBER :: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA :: 1640 GMT

Miles: 5775
Cups of coffee: 49 (cumulative)

Before getting my morning cup of coffee, my knuckles were dragging on the ground.

Coffee sign
Just one more cup...
Now, halfway through a massive café mocha, I feel functional again. I commiserated with a caffeine-addict this morning about my dependence.

She works at the coffee shop where I'm getting my morning fix.

She said, since she started working here, she has to have a double-shot of espresso 10 minutes before she starts work to "let it seep in".

But Edith in Vancouver, my health is pretty good. I have managed to exercise almost every day, and we're eating well despite the heavy coffee intake.

But thanks for the concern! I've got a blog mom.

Sorry for the late update. One of my Wi-Fi cards is misbehaving, and Tallahassee is a dead zone for my high-speed mobile modem.

I'm updating with the internet equivalent of a carrier pigeon.

Thanks for all the questions. I'll spend the last day and a half trying to clear the decks.

John in Connecticut asks what books people are reading and whether it is influencing their vote in the election.

A woman clasps Unfit for Command at the Republican Convention
The books probably reinforce views rather than change them

We did overhear a conversation at the airport in Atlanta about "Unfit for Command", by John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi.

It is number one on the New York Times' hardcover non-fiction bestseller list, and the Times describes it as "a negative appraisal of John Kerry's conduct in Vietnam."

The trio were largely dismissive of John Kerry, but we didn't get to chat with them before we had to board our plane.

As you point out, there have been a number of books critical of President Bush.

As a matter of fact, further down on the bestseller list are "Bushworld" by liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and "Where the Right went Wrong" by Patrick Buchanan.

The folks we've spoken aren't talking about these books much.

But from the very few people who have mentioned them, Richard and I get the impression that these books tend to reinforce voters' views not change them. (See my post on Fahrenheit 9/11 in part II of the weblog).

I'll stay in Connecticut with the comments and respond to Bruce, who says that this is probably the most irritating election on record.

"Never before have I seen an election hijacked so incredibly by the 30-second sound bite and image of the candidate. What ever happened to the issues?" Bruce says.

We are hearing a lot of disgust with the tone of the debate from both Republicans and Democrats.

As a matter of fact, it was one of the earliest posts in the blog.

And as we have found out, obsession over Vietnam and what the candidates did 30 years ago doesn't matter to most voters.

We hear a lot of frustration with the candidates and with us in the media. As Bruce says, they think the issues are getting lost.

Maybe we can break through here. Tell us what issues are most important to you.

23 SEPTEMBER :: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA :: 0415 GMT

Miles: 5773
Cups of coffee: 47

I haven't had a cup of coffee since 5.30 this morning, and I can tell. My eyes are bleary, but the blog calls.

Fortunately, I think that I've drunk so much coffee over the last two weeks that even when I don't have a cup the caffeine is leaching out of my bones.

Welcome to the Sunshine state, Florida, and Tallahassee, the epicentre of the recount battle four years ago.

We've come here to find out if the ballot debacle four years ago will motivate or alienate voters.

Before we dive into that on Thursday, we had a travel day. We were up at five this morning to catch a flight through Atlanta to Jacksonville Florida before driving for three hours across northern part of the state.

We didn't see much evidence of the recent hurricanes.

We did see an emergency services truck that had driven down from Tennessee, a road sign twisted off its metal posts and a few wrecked cars on lorries that looked like trees had fallen on them but little else. The real damage is west of here.

Fortunately, we had a chance to get off the main motorway today and travel for a while on a two-lane state highway.

We listened to gospel bluegrass as we drove past two prisons along Florida Highway 90 in the Osceola National Forest.

Thomas
Thomas had lived in Lake City all his life. His main concern was Iraq

We were in search of a local cafe, not some national chain. We wanted some place that would give us a sense of place.

After miles of searching, we found the De Soto Pharmacy in downtown Lake City. It had an old style soda fountain and lunch counter.

I had a real cherry Coke, and we chased our sandwiches with mountainous slices of chocolate cream pie.

I wanted to see what people in a small town in northern Florida thought of the election.

The first two women I tried to interview didn't want to talk. "Too much friction," one of them said.

But Thomas, a retired schoolteacher who had lived in Lake City all his life, allowed me to pull up a chair. His main concern was Iraq.

"It's getting worse not better, and regardless of our intent, the war is not following the path that Bush wants it to," he said.

De Soto Pharmacy
De Soto Pharmacy: A sense of place

He remembers Vietnam and fears that the US has more insurgents to deal with in Iraq.

But he doesn't like either candidate. "With Kerry, it's not clear that he would do something different," he said.

Richard and I were talking about this and remembering how just a couple of days ago, we had watched John Kerry make a major foreign policy speech in which he sharpened his attack on George Bush and laid out a four-point plan for Iraq.

I read the analysis in the New York Times, Washington Post and other places online.

The Times said that John Kerry "seems to have found his voice" on Iraq.

But if John Kerry found his voice on Iraq, a lot of people still haven't heard it.

We have met a lot of voters who say they are still not clear about where Kerry stands.

Maybe it will take a few days to sink in, maybe people will hear the message during the debates, but in the case of Thomas and others we've spoken to, they are still unclear on where John Kerry stands not only on Iraq but on other issues.

Thomas said that he will vote for John Kerry as a protest vote against George Bush.

But Kerry has to find some way to break through to voters or else he doesn't stand a chance to unseat George Bush.

Send us your comments in response to Kevin's weblog using the form below.


I like to see presidential elections focus on issues. However, I would like to point out to those who decry the tone of the current contest saying that it is offensive, that it may be offensive and dirty, but it is not abnormal. The most important "issue" raised by the Whig party in the 1828 presidential election was the date of Rebecca Jackson's divorce from her first husband. Andrew Jackson won anyway. As former governor, and presidential candidate Jerry Brown of California once observed, "American presidential politics is a full contact sport; not for the faint of heart." We in the United States don't have a royal family to provide us with a reality soap opera, so our politicians seem to be fair game.
Ed Tracey, Dalzell, SC (Currently working in Baghdad, Iraq)

Read your own BBC reports on "ordinary Iraqi people" killed since Bush/Cheney initiated military action. You won't find such statistics in our US media. This is just one of my concerns. Many years ago a book was written describing us as "ugly Americans." Then I didn't believe it. Now, sadly, we are earning the name and so many of our citizens simply do not seem to care.
Laurel Sparks, Madison, Indiana USA

I just discovered BBC radio and your blog - I like it! I live near Lake City and I wish I had seen you. I want to know what Europeans think about USA. I'm really disappointed with our political climate. Did you see the Gainesville Sun (newspaper) on 9/16/04? There was a story about a professor who got arrested for punching a life-size cutout of George W Bush - interesting reading.
Linda Pickrell, Gainesville, Florida, USA

I definitely get more information from the blogs than the newspaper. The direction Bush is trying to take this country is frightening.
Bil Rosky, Juneau, Alaska

I would like to respond to Jonathon from Australia. You say that the US has a fundamentally different mindset than the rest of the Western world. I would say that this is true of only about half the country. You need to remember that there are many of us who despise Bush with a passion and have been opposed to almost every foreign policy decision he has made. This country is split 50-50 with Bush-lovers vs Bush-haters. Please do not generalise us all into uninformed religious fanatics. At least half of our population deserves more respect.
Sarah, Libertyville, IL, USA

Re: Jane's question regarding reaction to the lapse of the assault weapons ban. The reaction varies depending upon region. I'm a Kentuckian and a Southerner. We are very happy that the assault weapons ban is gone. Although semi-automatic military style weapons (assault weapons) were legally available during the ban's 10 year tenure, now that the ban is gone, prices on these firearms are considerably lower because gun makers can once again manufacture new weapons. I'm one that believes the citizens of a free republic need relatively unfettered access to all military small arms. I personally own quite a few semi-automatic "assault weapons" as well as an assortment of fully automatic weapons. I own these weapons legally and am familiar with their operation. I would like see more people own and become familiar with these weapons. Only then can we guarantee that the ideals of the founding fathers can be properly preserved. After all, they believed very strongly in an armed citizenry. And an armed citizenry is what has kept America free and independent for over 200 years. And Yes, I'm a very strong supporter of President Bush.
Scott, Covington, Kentucky, USA

Hi Jane, The weapons ban got lost amid the clutter of other issues. Gun referendums usually surface in times of relative peace, unfortunately, this isn't the time. Coupled with the fact that crime is down overall across the country and gun violence isn't making a big splash this year. It will affect some votes, but it would affect more if there weren't so many other pressing problems.
Jason , Washington DC

Just back from a road-trip of our own up the west coast. The one political view that surprised us out there was disdain for the UN. I guess it's not a campaign issue, but since GW has just been back there, I wondered if you come across any evidence of that viewpoint?
Keith Furnell, Woking, England

The Republican Agenda has hi-jacked millions of good-hearted Republican citizens. The administration's propaganda and campaign of fear somehow succeeds in retaining their support. Responsible Republicans must take a deep look at their loyalties and adapt them to true realities of the present day. The policy they support is making America and the world incredibly deadly and at the same time bolstering terrorist networks.
Travis Kuecken, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

I am enjoying the blog. Finding it hard to imagine the polls in the US are correct in putting Bush so far ahead in so many states. Fear is working for the GOP. Should be a close one this time around. It's too bad Europe pays more attention to our election than 60% of the people in our own country. If they did, this election wouldn't be close.
Eric Schueffner, Madison, WI, USA

What is the reaction to the lapse of the assault weapon ban? I would be interested in hearing views on both sides and whether the fact that Bush did not push for a vote to extend the ban will have an effect on people's votes in the election.
Jane Desnoyers, London, England

Two questions: 1. Is this election viewed as an contest between two politicians or as a referendum on one man? 2. A few of my more conservative friends have voiced the sentiment that Europe is freebooting off of the blood of the US and British-led coalition. How widespread is that sentiment?
Jay Ham, Los Angeles, CA

Great weblog. Have you met any Americans who view George W Bush with the disdain that much of the educated population of Europe appears to? It just seems that the mind set in the US is so fundamentally different to other parts of the Western world - particularly with regard to the intense importance of religion. Candidates in Europe proselytising their religion as some sort of divine guidance would be looked on with distaste.
Jonathan, Melbourne, Australia

This election is probably the most irritating on record. It is so divisive and partisan. Never before have I seen an election hijacked so incredibly by the 30-second sound bite and image of the candidate. What ever happened to the issues? One things for sure, Bush's propaganda boys are killing Kerry's, and for some reason the electorate can't see through it. I give up!
Bruce, Connecticut, USA

I think that blogs are essential to give ordinary people a voice because the mainstream media, especially in the US, is so pro-president, regardless of the party the president belongs to.
Barrie Long, London, England

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