The presidential race

Bring back the real McCain

The Republican candidate is fighting hard, but he needs to do more to separate himself from George Bush

AMERICA’S Republicans head for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul this weekend in a position that few of them could have imagined even a month ago. Although voters claim that they prefer Democrats to the representatives of the Grand Old Party by a solid margin of more than ten percentage points, and though it seems that there is hardly a soul in the nation who thinks things are on the right track, by the start of the conventions John McCain was more or less level with Barack Obama in the opinion polls. There is a genuine chance that, even after almost eight years of George Bush’s calamitous presidency, the voters may actually opt for another stint of Republican administration. In part this reflects the weaknesses that lie alongside the charismatic skills paraded by Mr Obama in Denver this week: his inexperience, especially in foreign affairs, at a time when the world looks more and more complex and troubling, and a certain cerebral aloofness that seems to make it hard for him to connect with Middle America. But a big part of the reason is that, in Mr McCain (see article), the Republicans have rallied round the only candidate who could have saved them.

Mr McCain’s fierce patriotism appeals to the security-conscious, while his long history of opposition to the shortcomings of his own party (its hostility to immigrants and its insouciance in the face of climate change, to take two examples) gives him more pull with independent voters than any other Republican could have offered. The Economist particularly likes him for his robust commitment to free trade, and his firmness in the face of American losses in Iraq. Above all, he has often displayed a degree of political courage that Mr Obama has never shown. This at least offers the chance that, as president, Mr McCain would be able to make bipartisan deals with a Congress that looks certain to be heavily Democratic.

But if he is to do the astonishing and win, against the odds and despite the fact that Democratic voters are more fired up than the disconsolate Republicans, Mr McCain still has to surmount some sizeable obstacles. One problem is something that he, like Mr Obama, can do nothing about: his age. At 72, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated, apart from Ronald Reagan in his second term. But voters can at least be reassured by the cracking pace the candidate has set on the campaign trail. His choice of vice-president, expected on August 29th, will be crucial too, playing a bigger part in the voters’ ultimate decision than Mr Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running-mate on the eve of his own convention. Another obstacle is Mr McCain’s legendarily volcanic temper, which the candidate himself admits to: a serious flaw in a man vying to be commander-in-chief. Still, plenty of other politicians share this trait—Bill Clinton was another serial erupter—and it can at least be said that Mr McCain has kept himself entirely under control during the campaign.

A third obstacle is that many Americans see him as a warmonger, a man who would be happy to bomb Iran if that is the only way to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, who is more than ready to confront Russia, and who supported toppling Saddam Hussein before George Bush was elected and New York and Washington were attacked. This fear is surely overdone: even though Mr McCain is presumably more minded than Mr Obama to attack Iran, neither the joint chiefs of staff nor most of his advisers think that is a good idea. But it is not a completely unreasonable worry. Mr McCain needs to find ways of correcting this perception, rather than making jokes about bombing.

Another broad concern, too, needs scotching at the Republican convention and during the election campaign that will follow it. In his desire to get elected, Mr McCain has been prepared to abandon some of the core beliefs that made him so attractive. This is not so much true of foreign policy (Mr McCain has long been a hawk, since the successful NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo). But even here, he used to talk much more about multilateralism than he does now. On the campaign trail, Mr McCain has tended to stress the more hawkish side of his nature, for instance by promoting his idea for a “league of democracies” that risks being needlessly divisive.

Too polite to the right

But it is on domestic policy that Mr McCain has tacked to the right more disquietingly. Doubtless he feels he needs to shore up his support among the conservatives who mistrust him. But the result is that he could easily alienate the independent supporters who are his great strength. Mr Obama will sensibly hope to woo them away.

Mr McCain used to be a passionate believer in limited government and sound public finances; a man with some distaste for conservative Republicanism and its obsession with reproductive matters. On the stump, though, he has offered big tax cuts for business and the rich that he is unable to pay for, and he is much more polite to the religious right, whom he once called “agents of intolerance”. He has engaged in pretty naked populism, too, for instance in calling for a “gas-tax holiday”. If this is all just a gimmick to keep his party’s right wing happy, it may disappear again. But that is quite a gamble to take.

Two months remain before the election, more than enough time for Mr McCain to allay some of these worries. He needs to spend less time reassuring evangelicals that he agrees with them about abortion and gay marriage, and more time having another look at his tax plans. The old John McCain attacked Mr Bush for his tax cuts, which he said were unaffordable. The new John McCain not only wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, but wants to add to them by virtually eliminating estate tax (something that would benefit a tiny number of very rich families, like his own). He also proposes to slash corporation tax. People on middle incomes would see little benefit. Independent analysts agree that Mr McCain’s plans would increase an already huge deficit.

Hawkish foreign policy, irresponsible tax cuts, more talk about religion and abortion: all this sounds too much like Bush Three, the label the Democrats are trying to hang around the Republican’s neck. We preferred McCain One.

Obama launches historic campaign

Barack Obama addresses the Democratic convention

Barack Obama has accepted the Democratic Party’s historic nomination to run for president of the US in front of a crowd of some 75,000 people.

In an address at the party’s national convention in Denver, he promised he would do his best to keep alive the American dream of opportunity for all.

“America, we are better than these last eight years,” he told cheering crowds. “We are a better country than this.”

Mr Obama is the first African-American to be nominated by a major US party.

In his speech at Denver’s Invesco stadium, Mr Obama promised to reverse the economic downturn afflicting the US and restore the nation’s standing in the world.

He also attacked the record of the Bush administration and his Republican rival for the presidency, John McCain.

“We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight years,” he said.

I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom

Barack Obama

“This moment – this election – is our chance to keep, in the 21st Century, the American promise alive.”

Mr Obama criticised Mr McCain as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans and said he had failed to help them on issues such as the economy, health care and education.

He also stressed that he would call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, whereas Mr McCain stood “alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war”, he said.

“I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, who yearn for a better future,” he said.

He rejected criticism by the McCain campaign that he is a “celebrity”, pointing to his family’s past financial hardships, and said his rival should stop questioning his patriotism.

In a final rallying call, Mr Obama recalled the message of Martin Luther King, who – 45 years ago to the day – gave his “I have a dream” speech in his historic march on Washington.

“America, we cannot turn back,” he said. “We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to walk into the future.”

Joined on stage by his family and running-mate, Joe Biden, Mr Obama was given a standing ovation by the crowds.

‘Not ready’

A spokesman for John McCain issued a statement dismissing the speech as “misleading”.

“Tonight, Americans witnessed a misleading speech that was so fundamentally at odds with the meagre record of Barack Obama,” campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

“The fact remains, Barack Obama is still not ready to be president.”

Al Gore speaks at Invesco Field, Denver, 28 Aug
If you like the Bush-Cheney approach, John McCain’s your man. If you want change, then vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden

Former Vice-President Al Gore

The BBC’s Justin Webb in Denver says that this needed to be a serious speech by Mr Obama and it was.

One feature was that Mr Obama made frequent reference to the future, our correspondent says. The Obama camp know that Americans are worried about Mr McCain’s age and ever so subtly they are making an allusion to it.

Martin Luther King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, had earlier told the convention that his father’s dream lived on in Mr Obama’s candidacy.

He said: “We are all the children of the dream and he is here in all of our hearts and minds.

“But not only that, he is in the hopes and dreams, the competence and courage, the rightness and readiness of Barack Obama.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore also called on the Democrats to “seize this opportunity for change” and elect Mr Obama.

Linking Mr McCain firmly to the policies of President George W Bush, Mr Gore said it was vital that Americans changed course if they wanted to tackle a “self-inflicted economic crisis”, protect the rights of every American and halt global warming.

“If you like the Bush-Cheney approach, John McCain’s your man. If you want change, then vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden,” he said.

Mr Gore added that the US was “facing a planetary emergency” and that the ties of Mr McCain and the Republicans to big oil firms meant they would not act to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“So what can we do about it?” he asked. “We can carry Barack Obama’s message of hope and change to every family in America.”

‘Open convention’

Mr Gore’s address, warmly received by the crowd, followed performances from singers Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and John Legend.

Barack Obama speaks at the Invesco stadium, 28 Aug

Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear Mr Obama’s speech

Mr Obama’s vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden made an unscheduled appearance on stage to tell the crowds: “When we talked about an open convention, this is what the Democrats meant.”

The Obama campaign took the unusual move of holding the closing night speeches in the sports stadium to allow ordinary voters, as well as party delegates, to attend.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who himself ran for the Democratic nomination before withdrawing and eventually endorsing Mr Obama, used his speech to attack the Republicans.

While Mr McCain should be respected for his wartime service, he told the convention, that was no reason to elect him president.

Mr Obama’s much-anticipated appearance was the highlight of the party’s carefully choreographed four-day event.

Clinton endorsement

Questions remain as to whether Mr Obama can cement his standing within his own party, and reach out to those parts of the electorate that are yet to be convinced by him, the BBC’s Matthew Price in Denver notes.

He was resoundingly endorsed by ex-President Bill Clinton on Wednesday, which may help consolidate his standing.

Earlier that same day, in a moment of high drama, his defeated rival Hillary Clinton cut short a roll-call vote to endorse Mr Obama’s candidacy by acclamation, in a powerful gesture of unity.

The presidential election on 4 November will pit Mr Obama against Mr McCain, who will be nominated next week at his party’s convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Republican officials say Mr McCain has chosen his running-mate, but the person’s identity has not yet been announced.

Mr McCain is due to hold a 10,000-strong rally in the swing state of Ohio on Friday, at which it was expected he would present his vice-presidential candidate.

Rumours swirled on Thursday amid reports that a front-runner for the role, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, had abruptly cancelled several appointments for the next day.

Vladimir Putin accuses Bush of provoking Georgia conflict to help John McCain

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Vladimir Putin accused President Bush tonight of orchestrating the war in Georgia in a plot to get John McCain elected to the White House.

In his most explosive allegation since the South Ossetia crisis erupted, the Russian Prime Minister said that the United States had provoked the conflict to aid the Republican candidate, who is an outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

“It is not just that the American side could not restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal act. The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army,” Mr Putin said.

“Why spend years holding difficult negotiations and looking for complicated compromises in ethnic conflicts? It’s easier to arm one of the parties and push it to kill the other party, and the job is done.

“The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US President.”

Mr Putin said that his defence officials had told him that Americans were operating in the conflict zone in Georgia during the fighting.

He added: “It should be admitted that they would do so only following direct orders from their leaders. Therefore, they were acting in implementing those orders, doing as they were ordered, and the only one who can give such orders is their leader.”

Mr Putin did not name Mr Bush directly but the White House swiftly denounced his allegations, made during an interview with CNN. His comments were also broadcast on Russian television, which had been circulating a similar conspiracy theory last week.

By lending his authority to the claims, Mr Putin has raised tensions with the US to a new level just days before Dick Cheney, the US Vice President, is due to arrive in Georgia to show support for its pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said: “To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational.

“Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defence officials who said they believed this to be true are giving him really bad advice.”

The deputy head of Russia’s general staff told reporters in Moscow that troops had found a US passport in a village near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, where he said Georgian special forces had been operating during the conflict.

“What was that gentleman’s purpose of being among the special forces and what he is doing today, I so far cannot answer,” Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said.

“We have been looking for the holder of the passport but haven’t been able to find him. We know that he is a resident in the state of Texas.”

Mr Putin’s allegations were broadcast as President Dmitri Medvedev turned his back on a wave of Western condemnation and sought support in the East for his decision on Tuesday to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

But China and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan refused to rally round their fellow member Russia at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, despite an appeal from Mr Medvedev to denounce Georgian “aggression”.

A joint declaration praised Moscow’s “active role in promoting peace” in the Caucasus but also stressed the need to respect existing borders. It said: “The participants…underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity.”

Sarkozy wants world leaders to meet to revive WTO

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PARIS, Aug 27 (Reuters) – World leaders should meet to try to break the deadlock that sank global trade talks in Geneva last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday, echoing similar calls from the United States and Brazil.

The 7-year-old Doha round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks to reduce trade barriers collapsed after the United States and India failed to agree on a proposal to help developing countries protect their farmers from a surge in imports.

Sarkozy said an agreement between the main industrialised nations used to be enough for developing countries to fall into line, but that had changed with emerging powers like India and Brazil now just as important for obtaining a deal. This called for a change in the way WTO business was conducted, he said.

“Should we continue another seven years without changing anything?” Sarkozy said in a speech to French diplomats.

“Should we not rather be thinking about a new way of negotiating, and plan a meeting of the main heads of state involved to reflect on ways of getting out of this crisis?”

France, Europe’s biggest agricultural producer, has been a vocal defender of European farm subsidies. Sarkozy had said during the Geneva talks that the proposals on the table were unacceptable because Europe’s trading partners were not offering enough in return for proposed cuts in EU subsidies.

This angered EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who complained he was being undermined in his mission to represent the interests of the entire bloc.

In the end, the French position was not tested because the talks collapsed over a separate issue.

Many WTO negotiators felt the Geneva talks in July were the last chance of clinching a deal before a new U.S. administration is in place, but Sarkozy is the latest of several senior figures to challenge that view in recent weeks.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said on Aug. 22 that serious negotiations should resume in September and a deal was “still conceivable” this year.

Brazil and Australia have also backed an urgent resumption of talks, as has World Bank President Robert Zoellick. (Writing by Estelle Shirbon)

Russian-backed paramilitaries ‘ethnically cleansing villages’

Russian-backed paramilitaries are “ethnically cleansing” villages on Georgian soil, refugees and officials told The Times yesterday.

South Ossetian militiamen have torched houses, beaten elderly people and even murdered civilians in the lawless buffer zone set up by the Russian Army just north of Gori. The violence, close to the border with the breakaway republic recognised by Russia this week as independent, has prompted a new wave of refugees into Gori, 40 miles north of Tbilisi.

People who had started to return to their villages in the area are now fleeing for a second time, joined by many elderly people who had refused to leave their homes when the Russians invaded two weeks ago.

A straggle of refugees gathered yesterday at the feet of a giant statue of Josef Stalin, Gori’s infamous native son, to register with the local authorities and the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, for emergency supplies and accommodation in three tent cities being built near a football stadium.

“They had no uniform — I think they were Ossetians,” said Siyala Sereteli, 73, who fled her village of Irganeteye the previous day when irregular forces arrived. Weeping, she lifted her sleeve to show a deep bruise inflicted by a blow from a rifle stock. “They took everything they wanted, even the fans. They beat up a man using sticks and a chair and then threw him in the river,” she said.

Other refugees were clustered in the shabby city hall, trying to glean news of relatives still inside the buffer zone, which Russia said it had established to prevent Georgian attacks on South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports. A look of deep shock froze the face of Oliko Gnolidze when she managed to make contact on her mobile phone with an uncle, Nodari Jashiashvili, in Tkviai, about a 20-minute drive away.

“There is panic here, they are burning houses,” came the crackly voice of her uncle. “I don’t know what to do. Ossetians are in the village.” Ms Gnolidze, 38, said that in earlier conversations her uncle had told her that only a few people remained in the village, with Ossetian irregulars looting under the noses of Russian troops, described by Moscow as “peacekeepers”. She said the Russians had forced her uncle to cook a meal for them, after which he had fled and hidden in nearby woods.

Shorta Kharadze, a 45-year-old lorry driver, returned to Gori from Tbilisi, where he had sheltered during the fighting, after his mother’s neighbours from the village of Megheverizkevi told him that she had been murdered by South Ossetian militiamen.

Looking gaunt, Mr Kharadze said the neighbours had telephoned him to say that two men in uniform had come to the home of his 77-year-old mother, Oliya, and demanded to know why she hadn’t left the village. She had been wounded in the arm during the fighting in the area but had refused to leave.

“They beat her with an axe handle. There’s a pond in our yard — she fell near it and they pushed her in. I don’t know if she was still alive when they pushed her in or if she drowned,” Mr Kharadze said.

“It’s like ethnic cleansing, genocide,” said Koba Tlashadze, a council official in Gori, which was itself briefly occupied by Russian forces before last week’s ceasefire. “It’s a special operation codenamed Clean Field, because they are emptying the villages.”

The UNHCR has voiced its concern about reports of “new forcible displacement caused by marauding militias north of Gori near the boundary with South Ossetia”. It said as many as 400 displaced people had gathered on Gori’s square on Tuesday “after being forced to flee their villages by marauders operating in the so-called buffer zone established along the boundary with South Ossetia”.

Alessandra Morelli, a UNHCR co-ordinator in Gori, said that confirming the stories was impossible because Russian checkpoints had sealed off the buffer zone.

Farther west, in Borjomi, Georgia’s Environment Minister accused Russia of having deliberately started extensive forest fires in the country’s main natural park by firing incendiary flares into tinder-dry mountains. After a helicopter inspection of the still-smouldering area, Irakli Ghvaladze said an investigation was being set up into Russian strikes on the park — far from military operations — for almost a week during the conflict. “We have begun to investigate this ecocide,” he said. The fires had destroyed hundreds of hectares of forest, with fire-fighting helicopters unable to operate for fear of being shot down. “Who knows why the Russians did this? They destroy everything,” he said.

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