x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

John McCain's former campaign strategist speaks at NYU

With the US presidential elections a little more than seven months away, the UAE's eyes are firmly on the contest for the role of Leader of the Free World.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney

ABU DHABI // With the US presidential elections a little more than seven months away, the UAE's eyes are firmly on the contest for the role of Leader of the Free World.

Barack Obama hopes to deliver a second term in office for the Democrats, as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul continue their battle to win the Republican Party candidacy and take him on.

The intense interest with which the UAE is watching the campaign is no surprise, say two players from the opposite sides of past presidential races.

"The American president is president of the world, with only Americans voting, so it is no surprise this country, as well as the rest of the world, would be interested in the race," said Bob Shrum, a campaign adviser for the past Democrat challengers Al Gore and John Kerry.

Mr Shrum was taking part in a discussion titled The Road to the White House 2012, hosted by the New York University Abu Dhabi at Manarat Al Saadiyat last week.

It also included Steve Schmidt, the former campaign adviser to the Republican John McCain.

Mr Schmidt, who was portrayed by Woody Harrelson in the HBO film Game Change and was on his first visit to the country, said the capital offered an ideal setting for the debate.

"This is an extremely important region for the US and [America] will continue to be engaged in it whether you have a Republican or Democratic administration," he said.

Both former Washington insiders took the opportunity to voice concerns over the issue of campaign funding.

Mr Schmidt criticised the influence of "big money" in the race, saying billionaires were trying to gain influence under the guise of interest groups.

"This will be the first billion-dollar political campaign," said Mr Schmidt. "You have billionaires playing a presidential race at a high-roller table, placing their chips on various presidential candidates.

"The money is undisclosed, no one knows where the money is coming from. The campaign finance structure in the country is absolutely, fundamentally broken."

Mr Shrum, a frequent visitor to the UAE who has been closely involved in the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Scholars Programme at NYUAD, added: "You will see interest groups that will spend huge amounts in the general election and that will help Republicans more than Democrats."

The two men also discussed the race for the Republican primaries.

"It has been a very strange primary season that has more closely resembled a reality television show than it has a traditional election," said Mr Schmidt.

"It has been the most entertaining show on television, with candidates looking like they are running for the President of Mars."

Mr Shrum, who teaches domestic policy formation and analysis at NYU's home campus, said he thought that the millionaire businessman and front-runner Mitt Romney would win, because his opponents "look like they were recruited from the cast of the Monty Python Circus". But he added that many Republicans felt Mr Romney did not share the party's conservative core values.

"Even though he has huge money advantages, they have huge doubts about him," Mr Shrum said.

"They doubt his sincerity as a conservative, they doubt his character, they doubt his qualities as a politician."

The two men were also scheduled to meet students in the Sheikh Mohammed scholars programme.

The US presidential election takes place on November 6.

tsubaihi@thenational.ae