US polls see final rush for crucial votes

Opinion polls predict a close race that may shift power balance.

REPUBLICANS and Democrats rushed to get out the precious vote yesterday, keenly feeling the edge of last-minute opinion polls that said the Congressional race had narrowed.

Walking out of the polling booth at sunrise, President George W. Bush implored Americans of all stripes to make their voices heard.

Democrats, scenting an imminent victory yet taking no chances, spared no effort either in trying to mobilise votes.

Americans seemed to oblige, by turning out in millions to vote in the hard-fought Congressional elections that have shaped up as a referendum on President Bush and his policies.

After a five-day sprint through 10 states to rouse supporters in Republican strongholds, Mr Bush urged all Americans to vote no matter which side they backed.

“Do your duty,’’ he said. “Cast your ballot and let your voice be heard.”

Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean called on voters to not just cast their own ballot, but to pressure friends and relatives to get to the polls as well.

“The power is in your hands — by getting as many people to vote as you can, you’ll bring a change to our country and end Republican rule,” he said in an e-mail to supporters.

What the voters made of the messages is likely to be known today. It could change the Congressional balance of power, giving the Democrats their first House win in 12 years, with the slim possibility of even winning the Senate.

A series of Republican misfortunes, including a string of scandals, set the stage for a Democratic resurgence. But looming large above everything else was Iraq.

At stake are all 435 House seats, 33 of the 100 Senate seats, and 36 of the 50 state governorships.

If a clear-cut Democratic victory is in the offing, it would be apparent by early evening. If not, it will take until tomorrow – or later.

A Democrat win is unlikely to bring substantive changes to US policy in Asia, say analysts.

But a Congress steered by the Democrats will be sure to prompt populist rhetoric against China as well as calls to block new free trade agreements (FTAs).

One of the first legislative casualties could be Mr Bush’s power to negotiate FTAs without Congressional review, says a Congressional aide. Ongoing FTA negotiations with several countries including Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea could take a hit.

But major policy changes on Asia are unlikely. Harvard professor Stephen Walt, an international relations expert, explained that, for one, Congress – even if it controls the purse strings – has little direct influence over foreign policy.

For South-east Asia, personalities – not parties – matter.

The Democrats might relax pressure on Myanmar if they take over the Senate, with the likes of Mr John Kerry – known to favour normalising ties -taking over the Senate Asia sub-committee.

But the issue on the minds of most Americans – and political watchers elsewhere – is Iraq.

A Democrat victory could pressure the Bush administration to exit the war-torn country. This might ultimately give Washington more bandwidth to engage in Asia.

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