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From Our Correspondent: Letter from America
A journey to the heart of the presidential election

November 6, 2000
Web posted at 1:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:30 a.m. EDT

I usually take my home leave in October, and this year has been no exception. Flights are easier to get and cheaper in the off-season, the weather is cooler in Florida, where my father makes his home, and the nice crisp smell of autumn pervades the air in Seattle, where my children live and work. And there was another reason for a political junky to be in the States this year. There was a chance to immerse myself in American politics close up, instead of just watching the campaigns from a distance.

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It took me a while to realize that my travel itinerary had, by chance, taken me to the very epicenters of this year's presidential campaign, which will be decided tomorrow. Whoever carries the Tampa Bay area will carry Florida, and whoever carries Florida will be the next president of the United States. That is not just local boosterism, but the considered opinion of no less than Time magazine and its editors.

Actually, the electoral battleground is a somewhat wider field known to political analysts as the "I-4 Corridor." This refers to the interstate highway that runs from Tampa northwest across central Florida through Orlando to Daytona Beach. This used to be an empty land of orange groves, but has in recent years been filling up with young families drawn to work in the theme parks and high-tech industries that have sprung up around such growing mid-sized cities as Orlando and Lakeland.

The voting patterns of these new arrivals are much less predictable than some of the other more settled communities of this large and mostly Republican state. They would include the Cuban Americans in southern Florida, the transplanted mid-westerners, both trending Republican, or the large community of Jewish retirees in Miami (madly for Democrat Al Gore and his running made, Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish person to run on a national ticket).

Florida should be safely Republican in this year's election. After all, the governor is Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican candidate. He is very popular there and is naturally pulling out the stops for George W. For all that, the two candidates are running neck-and-neck, so they are scrounging for votes along the I-4 corridor. The two have visited the region, courting these uncommitted voters, so many times in recent weeks they should both get life-time passes to Disney World.

At the opposite end of the country is Washington state, which should be safely Democratic, but which is also now considered only touch-and-go for Gore. Clinton carried Washington twice. Hell, even Michael Dukakis carried Washington in 1988. As I turned on the television, I saw that the vice president had arrived for yet another stop in the Evergreen State (greeted by Maria Cantwell, the first dot-com millionaire to run for the Senate).

I can't remember when my humble home state has ever had so much attention for its middling eleven electoral votes. The candidates are spending more time there than in California, which has five times as many voters. But then California is seen as being safely Democratic this year (well, maybe not quite safe, but still leaning toward Gore). Again, Washington could go either way tomorrow, and so could neighboring state Oregon.

One reason, of course, is evident as you drive around north Seattle near the University of Washington. One sees quite a few yard signs supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and his (American) Indian running mate Winona LaDuke. Although Washington's establishment is overwhelmingly pro-free trade (this is the home of both Boeing and Microsoft, remember), many workers like Nader's protectionist line. This was, after all, the site of the "Battle of Seattle" at last year's meeting of the World Trade Organization.

When I was there two weeks ago, Nader was getting something like 10% of the vote in Washington, which is famously sympathetic to mavericks. That is why Al Gore is running scared in this state, and why the Democrats are bringing up some of the liberal headliners like the Rev. Jesse Jackson to urge voters to return to the fold. So while watching election returns, keep a special eye on Florida and Washington state.

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