On a recent episode of the Tonight show, Jay Leno asked his studio audience how many had watched

a presidential debate broadcast the previous evening. Out of the few thousand folks in the audience, not a single hand went up. However, most of them had watched the continuing prison saga of Paris Hilton. I know many readers will shrug their shoulders and sneer, “What do you expect from a Jay Leno audience?” However, leaving aside the intellectual types, I believe his audience represents a fair cross section of American society – even while conceding that Los Angeles can hardly be said to be ‘typical’ America. This begs the question: who do Americans vote for – and why? I read recently that the 2008 US Presidential campaign is likely to cost the candidates upward of one billion dollars. I also read that about 70 per cent of this enormous amount has been – and will continue to be – spent on television spots. Obviously, the candidates are willing to splurge on these TV ‘infomercials’, because they believe they have the greatest influence on potential voters. Many of these ads – apart from glorifying the candidates who paid for them, are very negative about their political opponents – some even downright vicious. So why do they work? Apparently, because it would take a knowledgeable and informed public to sift through the self serving rhetoric and judge the candidates’ true worth, based on their policies and public actions. Perhaps the candidates are banking on the assumption that the majority of the American public are not well informed on political issues – and would much rather watch “The View” or “Oprah” than a political debate. Perhaps that is why the candidates are willing to spend millions of dollars on paid TV spots, secure in the knowledge that these are the basis on which most of the voters will make their decisions. This does not make a lot of sense to me. By its very nature, a television ad will only highlight – and probably exaggerate – the virtues of the person who paid for it; and brush his or her flaws under the carpet. Perhaps they are also counting on the very human trait, which postulates that people are more ready to believe – and derive greater vicarious pleasure from – negative comments about their opponents. It is also a corollary that the individual who eventually emerges as the front runner in his or hers party’s nomination is generally the one who has spent the most money. So is it all about money then? Does it mean that Mr. Smith can never again go to Washington? I’m not denying that it is probably the same in most other developed nations. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations from the world’s most powerful democracy. That said, I also wonder if the high rolling candidates are really getting a bang for their bucks. Based on my travels in America; and what I read in the ‘serious’ newspapers, I am forced to the conclusion that the United States is an ideologically divided country. It is almost as if middle America is a separate country from the coastal regions. Each ‘country’ clings stubbornly to its cast-instone values; and change is anathema in their lexicon. It is rare indeed to find any conservative Republic who will concede that there are any redeeming virtues in the godless Democrats – and vice versa. John Kerry probably shot himself in the foot in 2004, but how else can one explain George Bush’s victory in 2000, over an obviously more qualified and competent Al Gore? Yes, I know many Democrats believe Bush stole that election, but how did he even get so close? Last summer, I spent a week with some American friends in California. They are lovely people but, being staunch Baptist Republicans, they refused to even watch a Democratic Presidential debate – let alone entertain the desirability of a Democrat occupying the White House. It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that they regard Hillary Clinton as the devil incarnate; but not by much.

I guess, in the final analysis, it all boils down to personalities. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front runner, because she is the most charismatic among her rivals – who, with the exception of Barrack Obama, are pretty lackluster. Similarly, Rudi Guliani is surging ahead in the Republican ratings because, to most Americans, he will always be the hero of 9/11 – regardless of his political competence in other spheres of governance. As for me, if I had a vote (and I can hear sighs of relief that I don’t), it would go to Clinton. For sheer entertainment value, the Hillary-Bill combination is simply unbeatable.