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The cliffhanger before the landslide

While the US presidential race is not over until it's over, the odds for victory are stacked heavily against John McCain. The story of the race, however, will be one of suspense right up to the last minute. Despite an emerging consensus between the Afghan government and its allies that there will be no military resolution to the conflict, the Taliban is in no mood for talking.

In The New York Times, Frank Bruni said on Tuesday, America's "fretful, hopeful voters will finally have their say, and none of the rigorously calibrated polls or demographically incisive analysts out there can tell us with any certainty what will happen". He added: "Will one candidate win by millions, or lose by thousands? If there is a clear victor, will he be the first black American ever elected to the presidency, or the oldest American ever to win a first term? "We don't need to know the answers to be certain of this much: no matter the outcome, it will be the climax of one of the most extraordinary presidential elections in this nation's 232-year history, and 'the first' and 'the oldest' capture only some of what has made it so remarkable. "Whether judged by the milestones reached, the paradigms challenged, the passions stirred or simply the numbers - the 85 per cent of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track, or the record-demolishing $640 million fund-raising mark that Barack Obama passed by mid-October - the election of 2008 actually warrants the sorts of adjectives and phrases that are often just journalistic tics: epochal, pivotal, historic, once-in-a-lifetime." In The Guardian, Michael Tomasky was holding his breath: "So as we reach the finish line: John McCain's pollster declares himself satisfied that the race is functionally tied in the important states; Barack Obama says 'we're winning'; while liberals across the US speak fretfully in the subjunctive tense, daring not to tempt fate by saying anything like 'when Obama is president'. "Are the liberal caution and the McCain quasi-optimism actually warranted? Is there any way the Republican could still win this thing? "The answer mathematically is... yes, he could. And it needn't even hinge on eking out a win in Pennsylvania." But having laid out the many pathways that could lead Mr McCain to the White House, Mr Tomasky conceded that the Republican candidate "would truly need a tsunami to hit that would shift the race in his direction by five to 10 points in the final days - a swing very nearly without precedent". Still, The Observer warned: "Barack Obama's campaign to become the first black American President was rocked yesterday, only 72 hours before election day, by the revelation that his aunt is an illegal immigrant in the US. "News about Obama's relative is a chance for the McCain campaign to generate some last-minute negative headlines about Obama. Four years ago Zeituni Onyango, 56, who is mentioned in Obama's personal memoir, was instructed by a court to leave the country after being denied political asylum. However, she now lives in local authority housing in Boston. "Illegal immigration is a political minefield in US politics and the story could be a vote-losing headache for Obama. Her refusal to leave the country does not make her unusual in America - there are an estimated 10 million 'illegals' - but the issue is a hot button one, especially with the white working-class voters courted by both Obama and John McCain." Yet despite claims that in its final hours the Obama campaign had been "rocked" by what was being dubbed as "auntiegate" by some in the media, The Financial Times reported: "Supporters of John McCain entered the final day of the epic 2008 presidential contest conceding that it would take a 'miracle' to stave off Barack Obama's widely forecast victory on Tuesday, as a clutch of polls showed the Democrat's lead widening into double digits. "Mr McCain, who will on Monday hold last-minute rallies in seven swing states in a rapid coast-to-coast dash, remained defiant, insisting that opinion polls had misread the mood of the country. On Sunday, Gallup showed Mr Obama with a 10-point lead over Mr McCain, enough to push him well into landslide territory. "The last time polls briefly recorded Mr McCain in the lead were in September before the financial meltdown. Republican pundits, many of whom have been predicting disaster for weeks, said there was little hope Mr McCain could turn the situation around." The Boston Globe considered five questions about America that will be answered by the election result, one of those being whether America is prepared to move beyond its racial divisions. "On the day of Obama's Democratic nomination acceptance speech, tens of thousands of African-Americans, most with children in tow, waited for hours in security lines to enter Denver's football stadium to celebrate the crowning of the nation's first black presidential nominee. "Despite the football setting, it was more of a church crowd - uplifted, generous, and full of faith. While some black voters would express concerns for Obama's safety and nervousness about his campaign, many others have remained quietly confident, even when polls narrowed and other Democrats worried that Obama wasn't as far ahead as he should be, given the country's problems. "Much of black voters' faith is in Obama himself. But there is also a quiet recognition among many that, whatever the extent of racial divisions, they don't preclude a majority-white country from electing a black president. "That by itself could change racial pathologies that have existed throughout American history. "Since George Washington, the president has been the symbol of the nation, as much as European monarchs once embodied their nations' identity. Having a black president just four decades after the end of legal segregation would force a reconsideration of almost all assumptions about race relations in America." In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof suggested where the next president should place his focus. "An unscientific poll of 109 professional historians this year found that 61 per cent rated President Bush as the worst president in American history. "A couple of others judged him second-worst, after James Buchanan, whose incompetence set the stage for the Civil War. More than 98 per cent of the historians in the poll, conducted through the History News Network, viewed Mr Bush's presidency as a failure. "Mr Bush's presidency imploded not because of any personal corruption or venality, but largely because he wrenched the United States out of the international community. His cowboy diplomacy 'defriended' the United States. He turned a superpower into a rogue country. Instead of isolating North Korea and Iran, he isolated us - and undermined his own ability to achieve his aims. "So here's the top priority for President Barack Obama or President John McCain: We must rejoin the world."

"On a rainy Friday evening in early August, six Taliban fighters attacked a police post in a village in Buner, a quiet farming valley just outside Pakistan's lawless tribal region," The New York Times reported. "The militants tied up eight policemen and lay them on the floor, and according to local accounts, the youngest member of the gang, a 14-year-old, shot the captives on orders from his boss. The fighters stole uniforms and weapons and fled into the mountains. "Almost instantly, the people of Buner, armed with rifles, daggers and pistols, formed a posse, and after five days they cornered and killed their quarry. A video made on a cellphone showed the six militants lying in the dirt, blood oozing from their wounds. "The stand at Buner has entered the lore of Pakistan's war against the militants as a dramatic example of ordinary citizens' determination to draw a line against the militants. "But it says as much about the shortcomings of Pakistan's increasingly overwhelmed police forces and the pell-mell nature of the efforts to stop the militants, who week by week seem to seep deeper into Pakistan from their tribal strongholds." In Newsweek Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau wrote: "Don't even ask Mullah Sabir about peace talks. There's nothing to talk about, says the tall, burly Afghan, one of the Taliban's highest-ranking commanders. 'This is not a political campaign for policy change or power sharing or cabinet ministries,' he tells Newsweek at a textiles shop on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. 'We are waging jihad to bring Islamic law back to Afghanistan.' The refusal to negotiate comes straight from the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, says Sabir, who did not want his full name used: 'The tone of his rejection has been so strong from the first that no one would dare to raise the subject with him.' The trouble is, Sabir hasn't seen Mullah Omar in years, and he doesn't know of anyone who has. Internet posts released in Mullah Omar's name on Muslim holy days are the only hint that the one-eyed Commander of the Faithful is still alive. All the same, Sabir says he and thousands of other Taliban won't stop fighting until they're back in power. "Everyone seems eager to talk peace in Afghanistan - except the only people who can turn the wish into a fact. The Taliban's brutal insurgent ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has endorsed the idea of negotiations; so has the US defence secretary, Robert Gates. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah personally hosted an exploratory discussion in Mecca between Afghan and Pakistani officials and former Taliban members during Ramadan, and last week Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders and politicians held a two-day meeting in Islamabad. But Mullah Omar's fighters aren't about to quit while they're on a roll. The number of Coalition deaths in Afghanistan since May has exceeded US deaths in Iraq for the first time since the invasion of Iraq. The Afghan insurgency, which seemed as good as dead in 2004, has come back strong." pwoodward@thenational.ae

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