US elections overshadowed by Wall Street

It's often small gestures that symbolize leadership and can help a candidate to victory.

Such gestures have been missing in the US election battle. In the midst of the most desperate economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s, where the need is great for crisis management and committed action, John McCain and Barack Obama appear almost helpless, empty of ideas, reports dpa.

Just as Bush gave the impression over the past weeks that he was a passive observer, not an actor, the two men who want to succeed him came across as standing on the sidelines.

"A leadership breakdown," is how the New York Times put it.

Until now, the US presidential campaign has been oddly lacking punch. Even the TV debates have landed with a mediocre thud.

Less than four weeks before election day on November 4, it's the frightening message from the financial world, economic anxiety and worry over the future that are dominating the campaign. Rarely has a White House race stood so darkly in the shadows of an acute crisis.

At times, the candidates look like extras on the movie set. Neither shows a talent for crisis management or inspiration. This - despite the historic nature of the coming vote that could place the country's first black president in the White House.

"Will America choose the old hero who favours tax cuts for business and the rich and backed George Bush's wars? Or the young man who promises health care for all, a swift exit from Iraq and more money for the average worker? As America's financial system buckles, this ought to be an unlosable election for the Democrats, But it isn't," the Economist writes.

Although the pendulum was swinging in Obama's direction, experts from all sides warned that the race still has a long way to go.

Obama, 47, no longer claims the darling role in the US media. Obamania, always stronger in Europe than in the US, has faded even more. The candidate who set out to change the political style of Washington, pulling in millions of young voters with the promise of change, has become noticeably more realistic.

Instead of high flying ideas, his campaign speeches now concentrate on the day-to-day worries of people about their jobs and income. Obama appears less often in his trademark massive public meetings, but instead meets with several hundred people in town hall meetings. The new approach may demystify the senator from Illinois - but he still holds the lead in polling averages.

John McCain, 72, was caught cold by the banking crisis. "The fundamentals of our economy are strong," McCain said just before the wave of bankruptcies, government take-overs and massive bail-outs started.

His decades-long record in Washington as an advocate of deregulation of Wall Street now looks like a target on his back. His loudly proclaimed decision to suspend his election campaign until the crisis was sorted out, and the 24 hours that it took him to get to Washington, fell flat.

McCain's basic dilemma: The Vietnam veteran's bread and butter themes of the war in Iraq, foreign affairs and national security have been overshadowed by the chaos on Wall Street. From the beginning, McCain has cultivated his image as war hero. There's hardly a public appearance where he does not mention being shot down over North Vietnam, his five years as a prisoner of war, his torture.

"We respect you as an American hero," Obama has said. But the strength of the war hero image fades, because the driving worry of voters is no longer war, but the economy.

The cards have been mixed and dealt anew - with the trumps landing in Obama's hands. Just four weeks ago, the scene was radically different. A feisty McCain, with the beaming Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in tow as his vice presidential candidate, was gaining on Obama and even passed him in some surveys.

An average of national polls tracked by now shows Obama with a 6.4 per cent lead compared to about 1 or 2 per cent in August. Experts warn that the lead is still within the margin of error.

In the end, the decision comes down to 50 different elections in 50 different states, where the ground war for electoral votes is being fought. While McCain has given up in the rust belt state of Michigan, he still only lags by about 4 percentage points in the fiercely contested battleground state of Ohio.

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