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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 January 2008, 12:17 GMT
A roundabout route to Washington

Among the horde of reporters following the presidential campaign trail across the US is the BBC's new Washington correspondent, Kevin Connolly, fresh from his last posting in Belfast.

I spent the closing moments of last year high above the deep, frozen plains of America's Mid-West, chasing midnight through the choppy darkness of the December skies.

Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire
Each candidate has an instant following of journalists

It seemed, for a while, as though the year would never turn, as we slid west through time zone after time zone, always hurrying on from the prickles of bright light far below on the ground that signalled another little town where December was giving way to January.

We were late and the plane was quiet.

Some of us had left the people we love behind us and even those for whom our destination - Des Moines, Iowa - was home knew they would not be making it back for midnight.

It did not help that the plane slithered and stumbled through the darkness as though slipping on occasional frozen patches of sky.

Somewhere below, the towns whose names first stirred my imagination about the US as a child came and went: Fort Dodge, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids.

The gazetteer of Iowa is a laconic history of conflict, settlement and dispossession.

Looking for clues

On your first days in a new assignment as a reporter, you work hard - sometimes a little too hard - to look for clues that will help you to decode life in your new adopted home.

When we changed planes in Chicago midway through my never-ending New Year's Eve, I found myself lingering in the self-help section of the bookstore, puzzled by the sort of advice for which Americans are prepared to pay.

Oliver Hardy (L) and Stan Laurel (R)
I do not want to become the latest in a long line of European settlers who arrive looking like Laurel and leave looking like Hardy

I now own copies of God Wants You To Be Rich and You're Broke Because You Want to Be.

If I ever disappear from this programme for a few months, you can assume I will be holed up somewhere writing a self-help book called something like: God Knows Why I'm Broke.

My favourite was called It's OK To Miss The Bed On Your First Jump, which I had assumed was a reassuring document aimed at very heavy drinkers.

Disappointingly, on closer inspection it turned out to be a sort of list of life lessons you can learn from living with a dog.

My brief stopover in the airport restaurant was more telling still.

Portion 'control'

I left Ireland promising myself that I would demonstrate self-control in this country which refuses to practise portion control.

I do not want to become the latest in a long line of European settlers who arrive looking like Laurel and leave looking like Hardy.

But of course my first meal was a cheeseburger the size of a dartboard.

Candidates with lifetimes of achievement behind them risk the humiliation of defeat on a global stage in return for the possibility of power on a global scale

When I ordered bacon on it, eight slices arrived. I was learning my first lesson about US cuisine.

Bacon is no longer really a meat; it has become a garnish served alongside or on top of other foods, as though it was a kind of porcine salad vegetable.

Occasionally it even comes ground up and sprinkled over your dinner like a kind of dark, meaty snow.

Next stop: New Hampshire

Iowa was, of course, the first staging post on the long road to November's presidential elections.

You will know by now how the eternal dramas of winning and losing played out not just there but in New Hampshire too, where the state primaries followed on a few days later.

Less than two weeks after leaving Ireland behind me, I was intrigued to find myself driving down a freeway in New Hampshire with road signs pointing off to neighbouring communities called Derry and Londonderry.

These are respectively the labels which Catholics and Protestants apply to the Maiden City in the north-west corner of the island of Ireland.

It is reasonable to assume that the founding immigrants may not have seen eye-to-eye on matters of history and politics.

But it says much about the Irish soul that they nonetheless - having travelled thousand of miles to leave the old enmities of home behind them - chose to build new towns right beside each other.

Political theatre

In the end, it was a strange way to begin a new posting to the US, travelling directly to the small towns of New England and the Mid-West rather than to Washington, the heart of US power.

But it was a useful lesson that it is in such places - in part, at least - that the presidential election will be decided.

And of course the influence at the disposal of whoever wins will be felt far beyond those places, in small towns all over the world, which is one reason why we follow the contenders through the wintry skies of the early stages of campaigning.

The other reason, of course, is very simply that US presidential politics is an expensive, gladiatorial political theatre.

Candidates with lifetimes of achievement behind them risk the humiliation of defeat on a global stage in return for the possibility of power on a global scale.

We will not know until November who has won and who has lost.

But I am sure that, in that moment of victory and defeat, my own thoughts will turn back to those pensive moments in Iowa's dark skies where it all began for me.

Map of the USA

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 January, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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