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Friday, 4 February, 2000, 05:09 GMT
Vote USA 2000 - your questions answered
Quiz BBC Correspondent Tom Carver on the US presidential elections
BBC correspondent Tom Carver is following the US presidential election campaign trail from the first of the caucuses and primary elections, through to election day itself on 7 November 2000.

The first primary - held in New Hampshire on Tuesday - sparked an upset for Republican George W Bush when he was defeated by underdog John McCain. And leading Democrat contender Al Gore managed to scrape only a narrow victory over his rival, former Senator Bill Bradley.

With the race for the presidential nominations still wide open, Tom Carver answers your questions on the candidates, the hype and the issues that matter:

Hywel, UK: How significant are donations from business interests in influencing the presidential race?

Tom Carver: Very influential. A presidential campaign is very expensive because to win, a candidate has to get his/her message across this huge country in a very short space of time. He has to buy TV advertising time and set up campaign headquarters in every state.

The cost has been escalating. Four years ago, the Republican candidate Bob Dole spent $42m on his entire campaign. George W Bush has already spent $38m and the campaign has barely begun! Individuals are limited to contributing $1000 each if they want to receive matching funds from the federal government. Bush has chosen not to receive matching funds so he is not bound by these limits.

Other candidates get round this by making use of 'soft money' which is used to buy advertisements supporting the candidate's position. Because the advertisements do not actually recommend one candidate or another, this money is not bound by the limits. A rather dubious practice. No wonder campaign finance reform has become one of the hot topics of this election!

Keith Cuiper, US: Why has the news media, in the US in particular but also internationally, not given any credit to the issue of campaign finance reform in the New Hampshire primary? Clearly voters were expressing angst over politics as usual in both primaries. However the US media seems unwilling to really address this issue and would prefer to ignore it in the hopes that it will subside. Reformist politicians, such as Governor Ventura, and politicians with reformist ideas - such as McCain and Bradley - are often subtly vilified in the corporate media to the benefit of the establishment candidates. Why do you feel there is such a reluctance on behalf of the US media to really address anti-establishment issues?

Tom Carver: Keith, I think you're right that the mainstream media has been slow to acknowledge campaign finance reform as a serious issue in this election. Commentators and journalists simply didn't believe that ordinary Americans would feel strongly about an issue which is regarded as rather arcane and 'inside the beltway' (ie only of interest to the political class).

But that changed in New Hampshire. At every rally where the candidates where questioned by the people, the issue came up. It's clear that the heavy involvement of corporate money in politics worries a lot of Americans. John McCain has always advocated it (he is the co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill which calls for sweeping changes) and he should rightly take a lot of the credit for putting it on the front page.

Ben Hawkins, England: From a distance there does not seem much difference between Republican and Democrat. Are there influential differences between the two and how much significance does it play on voting behaviour?

Tom Carver: Ben, you're right there aren't great ideological differences between the two parties. The 90s have seen both parties claim the centre ground. This is partly due to the end of the cold war but also because of Bill Clinton who won in 1992 with a centrist agenda. He used detailed polling data to find out exactly what the bulk of American voters wanted and then offered it to them. He didn't care whether he was stealing traditional Republican standpoints (like tax cuts). This was successful enough to get him re-elected in 96 and it has effectively broken the mould of American politics. There are no 'Republican' or 'Democrat' issues any more, it's all a question of degree.

This election is probably going to hinge on character not policies. Which candidate do you trust/respect the most. There is a lot of talk of 'integrity' and 'honesty'. This too is a legacy of Clinton who is deemed to have brought the office of president into disrepute with the Lewinsky affair.

James Bennett, UK: Would a win for a Republican candidate be enough to unite the party, given the intense divisions that have occurred in the last Congress? And would a win for the Democrats eradicate the embarrassment caused by Bill Clinton?

Tom Carver: James, on the Republican side, a win for Bush, the 'anointed candidate' of the Republican Establishment would certainly close the divisions in the party. The party hierarchy is backing a candidate who is moderate and affable and could hardly be more different from the abrasive, tough talking style of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans who controlled the party in the last congress. However if McCain wins, it could leave a legacy of bitterness because he is the 'outsider' and is disliked by many Republican backers because he advocates campaign finance reform.

The Democrat Party is very keen to move on from the embarrassment of the Clinton era. Whether Bradley or Gore wins hardly matters. Democrats will be so pleased at having survived the Clinton years without losing the White House.

Faisal Ghori, US: Since McCain has won the New Hampshire primary, can he keep the ball rolling, leading to a nomination?

Tom Carver: That's the question everyone is asking and no one knows the answer to, including me! The latest opinion polls in South Carolina where the next primary is to be held in a fortnight's time suggest he has received an incredible 'bounce' from his New Hampshire victory. He was trailing George W Bush by 20 points and is now ahead by 5 points!

Perhaps more significantly, his campaign has had offers of help from 4,000 new volunteers in the last 48 hours. McCain is hoping that his win in New Hampshire will snowball. The real question is whether the new support will bring in enough money to allow him to buy enough TV advertising time so that he becomes nationally well known. All the major primaries are in the next five weeks - that's not long and will require a lot of cash!

Chris, US: How much do you think the abortion issue will affect the race? The next president will probably appoint at least two judges to the Supreme Court, which could sway the balance.

Tom Carver: Chris, you're right. It may even be three Supreme Court judges who retire in the next four years. If they're replaced with three 'pro-lifers' by a Republican president, it would be enough to overturn the famous Roe Vs Wade ruling which makes abortion legal in the US. That does not mean that abortion would necessarily become illegal - the right to decide would revert to each state, so some states would ban it and others would keep it. However both Bush and McCain are well aware that a majority of Americans continue to favour the Right to Choose and that abolishing Roe Vs Wade would be extremely controversial.

Steve Jones, UK: How much interest do the electorate have in the fact that Bush's father has already been president? Is it a help or hindrance to Bush Jr?

Tom Carver: Steve, it certainly helps with name recognition and in a country where most people take very little interest in politics (less than half the electorate bother to vote), that's often enough to get the tick against your name! It's unclear how much of a help or a hindrance it is at this stage. I spoke to some voters in New Hampshire who said they supported GW because they liked Bush senior. Bush Senior is remembered as a man of integrity and that is a big buzzword this election. But others said GW lacks his father's calibre.

Andy Rix, US: Conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh have accused the American press and specifically the "liberal TV news establishment" of doing everything in its power to ensure that a Democrat stays in the Whitehouse. Today he suggested that the press "orgasm" over McCain's victory in New Hampshire was because McCain has several skeletons in his cupboard which they will relish exposing should he become the GOP's presidential candidate, thus enhancing Al Gore's chances of going the whole way. Is there a liberal conspiracy in the US TV news establishment?

Tom Carver: Being a cynical Brit, I subscribe to the cock-up rather than conspiracy view of history! Most journalists love John McCain for two reasons: he always has time for the press and he has made their job more interesting. Most of my American journalist friends were dreading the idea of a predictable Bush/Gore race. The American press is so diverse, especially when you consider the thousands of state TV channels and newspapers and websites, I think it's impossible to talk of an orchestrated conspiracy of any kind.

Eddie Hoover, US: I would be interested to know your views on the American political system, especially with regards to voter turn-out (or lack thereof). You are in a unique position to comment as you are an "outsider" working closely with the process. (Which is why I regularly visit the BBC's site for news.)

Tom Carver: Eddie, I have a lot of views on the American political system but I won't burden you with them all here! In essence I think the American constitution is an astonishing document which has ensured America has remained free, prosperous and united for more than 200 years - no mean achievement.

In the implementation there are obviously shortcomings such as low voter turn-out. That is partly a consequence of success: many Americans, unlike other countries, take their democracy for granted and do not bother to participate. It's partly a reflection of the candidates who have not inspired Americans in recent years. And it's partly because in times of prosperity and peace, Washington diminishes in importance. The one big silver lining to this cloud I believe is the internet which could offer people a much easier way to vote, encouraging participation.

John Knight, England: Whilst these guys are running for the presidency, they are not the party leaders. So who actually runs the respective parties and does that have any bearing on the candidates? It all seems "hit and miss'"for the most important political job in the world.

Tom Carver: John, America does not have a parliamentary system like the UK so there is no central party structure. One of the great strengths of the American system is its openness. Anyone can run for president so long as he/she was born in the US. They do not have to belong to a party. In fact the American Constitution does not even mention political parties because there weren't any in 18th century America.

The primary elections were set up later to allow political parties to choose their candidates. There are several party chiefs: there's the head of the Republican (or Democrat) National Committee which runs the party machinery. Each state has its own party chief and there is the head of the party in each of the two houses of congress. Each is fiercely protective of his powers and quite often the candidate who wins the primaries and becomes the official candidate is not the favourite of the party establishment.

Dan Skeldon, England: I appreciate that primaries are used by parties to choose their favoured candidate, but when does this choice occur, and when the nominations have been secured do states having had a primary get to vote again? I.e. do people vote for the man rather than the party and has New Hampshire cast its final vote?

Tom Carver: Dan, the official choice occurs at each party's conventions which take place at the end of July. A candidate must have the support of the majority of delegates at the convention to win the party's nomination. Most states order their delegates to vote for the candidates in proportion to how many votes the candidates received at the state's primary. So in practice, a winning candidate often emerges before the convention when it's clear that he/she has already secured a majority.

Then in November there is the general election when the whole of America votes for one or other of the chosen candidates. So yes, the people of New Hampshire (and every other state) get to vote twice: once in the primary, once in the general election.

Roderick Cobley, UK: I understand there is also a contest for the Reform Party candidate between Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump, yet the New Hampshire coverage hasn't mentioned them. Why not? Who won the the Reform battle in NH?

Tom Carver: Roderick, the Reform Party is not holding primaries in every state like the two major parties. It doesn't have the support or resources to do so. Instead it is trying to agree on a single candidate among all its registered supporters nationally. It'll be interesting to see who emerges as winner as the candidates could hardly be more different. Just look at Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump!

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Vote USA 2000
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See also:

02 Feb 00 | Americas
Carnival feel to first primary
02 Feb 00 | Americas
Both parties in a real fight
02 Feb 00 | Americas
Upset as Bush loses

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