Antoine Faisal from the Arab-American newspaper Aramica blogs the NH primary

The Race Is On!

Aramica witnesses the New Hampshire Primary

By Antoine Faisal

4 candidates, 3oo miles, and 2 days traveling from Durham, NH to Manchester, NH to Concord, NH and back again – talking to voters, attending rallies, and listening to the candidates (try) to work their magic and rile the crowds into states of voting frenzy before midnight approached and the voting booths opened.

Along with me on this manic trip were fellow members of our sponsoring organization – the Independent Press Association – all of whom represented a wide variety of ethnic and community newspapers in the greater NY area.

I was juggling several balls in the air. Whose concerns do I focus on: our readers overseas who are most interested in the candidates’ foreign policies; our new immigrant readers whose most pressing issues revolve around immigration and the war in Iraq or; our 2nd and 3rd generation readers, whose concerns are health care and taxes?

I approached the New Hampshire primary and the storm surrounding it with a healthy dose of skepticism, accustomed as I am to charismatic politicians who make grandiose promises they have no intention of keeping.

Uncle John?

Pollster Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center describes McCain’s appeal as that of an old uncle who’ll scold you when you’re wrong and “set you straight”. A lot of people seem to respond to that combination of warmth and strictness, as if every adult is secretly wishing they had someone still nagging them to do their homework or finish all their vegetables.

Listening to him on the steps of that Town Hall and watching the audience’s reactions, I could sense his sincerity. Here was a man who meant what he said and who would keep his promises.

He is the most moderate of the Republican candidates and the most experienced. He has a good reputation. There isn’t a hint of scandal or corruption anywhere near him.

The only question is whether you agree with his beliefs. He voted NO on preserving Habeus Corpus for Gitmo detainees. He believes Libyan disarmament was a CIA success story. He believes the War on Terror is the overriding issue.

Visual Aids Can’t Help This Campaign

Looking sharp in his sweater and slacks, Romney tries to distinguish himself by not wearing a suit and acting as if he’s just ‘one of the guys’ but it’s hard to pull off, as it’s well known he’s used a good deal of his personal wealth to finance his campaign.

It’s interesting that Obama’s lack of experience is called into question, as Romney’s only political experience is one term as governor of Massachusetts (2002 – 2006).

Romney’s big claim to fame was his ability to successfully manage the affairs of the 2002 Winter Olympics as its CEO and to turn around Massachusetts’ economy and budget 4 years running. While those are excellent accomplishments, there is little else to recommend him as Leader of the Free World.

Romney’s answer to the health care crisis in Massachusetts was to sign a health reform law in 2006 which requires nearly all Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance coverage or else face a penalty in the form of an additional tax assessment. He vetoed provisions providing health coverage to senior and disabled legal immigrants not eligible for federal Medicaid.

Change We Can Believe In?

Dr. Andrew Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said during our visit with him that every election has the ‘change’ candidates. While this is true, he left out one vital difference: this election’s ‘change’ candidate is different: he isn’t a white guy, his father was an immigrant, he’s lived abroad, and his parents were divorced.

But where it counts for Arab Americans, is Obama really any different?

In a speech he gave last year to AIPAC in Chicago, he said that Israel is “our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy… we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance…”

Clinton’s views aren’t that different. Three months ago, in a letter to Condoleeza Rice, she wrote:

In particular, you should press friendly Arab countries that have not yet done so, to:

1) Participate in the upcoming international meeting and be a full partner of the United States in advancing regional peace;
2) Take visible, meaningful steps in the financial, diplomatic and political arena to help Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad govern effectively and meet their obligations to fight terror;
3) Stop support for terrorist groups and cease all anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement;
4) Recognize Israel’s right to exist and not use such recognition as a bargaining chip for future Israeli concessions;
5) End the Arab League economic boycott of Israel in all of its forms; and
6) Pressure Hamas to recognize Israel, reject terror and accept prior agreements, and isolate Hamas until it takes such steps.

Neither are McCain’s. In July of 2007, he addressed the National Convention of Christians United for Israel:

“… When one thinks back over the conflicts – 1948, the Six Day War, Yom Kippur, Lebanon, the first Gulf War, two intifadas and Lebanon again – it is clear that Israel has been challenged more, in less time, than any nation on earth… But the tests continue – with Hamas and Hezbollah, in the anti-Semitism so pervasive in the Arab press, in the restive violence in Iraq and elsewhere… the leadership of Hamas must be isolated. The Palestinian people are ill-served by a terrorist-led government that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, refuses to renounce violence, and refuses to acknowledge prior peace commitments. The United States cannot have normal relations with a government that deliberately targets innocent Israeli civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Jewish population…”

An Immigration Resolution?

Obama’s detractors mention his ‘lack of experience’ as a disadvantage. Numerous elected officials have tremendous experience. This has not stopped them from digging an even deeper hole out of which the country will have to dig.

Experience hasn’t solved America’s immigration issues. Clinton, McCain, and Obama have all worked on it during their time in the Senate, with little success, so far. Obama supported McCain’s first immigration reform bill in 2005.

Clinton’s reform includes:
“…strengthening our borders, strict but fair enforcement of our laws, federal assistance to state and local governments, strict penalties for those who exploit undocumented workers, and a path to earned legal status for those who are here, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a high bar, including learning English… ”

Obama’s idea of reform:
“… reaffirms the rule of law and brings undocumented population out of hiding.” He helped craft the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed before the 109th Congress adjourned. The bill would provide more funds and technology for border security and prevent employers from skirting our laws by hiring illegal immigrants. The bill also would provide immigrants an opportunity to remain in the country and earn citizenship. Not all illegal immigrants would be guaranteed the right to remain in the U.S. under this proposal: they would first have to pay a substantial fine and back taxes, learn English, satisfy a work requirement, and pass a criminal background check.”

McCain’s view:
“… strong border security and enforcement provisions… greatly improve interior enforcement and put employers on notice that the practice of hiring illegal workers simply will not be tolerated… establish a system that emphasizes immigrants that contribute to the economic and cultural growth of our nation … undocumented workers will have incentives to declare their existence and comply with our laws. They may apply for a worker visa. They would be subjected to background checks. They must pay substantial fines and fees totally approximately $7000, learn English, enroll in civic education, remain employed, and if they choose to get a Green Card, go to the end of the line behind those that waited legally outside of the country to come in.”

Charmer of Hearts and Minds

Soft-spoken, low-key, intelligent, and articulate, it is a pleasure to listen to Obama, who spoke for close to 45 minutes and touched upon virtually every issue important to voters – from education to the war in Iraq.

Obama and Clinton voted on redeploying US troops by March of this year. McCain voted No, and has said that he would be willing to be the last man standing for US involvement in Iraq and went so far as to vote YES for spending 86 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama believes Iraq has distracted us from the Taliban in Afghanistan and has said that we should get Al Qaeda hiding in the hills between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Clinton says she voted for the war in Iraq based on available information, she wouldn’t vote for it today and is opposed to any war funding that doesn’t move the US toward withdrawal.

Romney’s view is that staying in Iraq protects the lives of American citizens, Iraq is part of a global jihadist effort to bring down the West, and we should keep open the option to attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Waiting for the Final Count

The scene was repeated at every venue occupied by candidates – dozens of journalists and photographers, preparing for that split second when the winner is declared so as to get the perfect image to reflect that candidate’s elation or disappointment.

Voters in New Hampshire felt pretty much the same way that I did about Huckabee (who believes that prisoners in Guantanamo are treated very well and that all illegal immigrants should be sent home so ‘Americans can hold their heads high’) and Romney (who believes that Muslims should have equality but “hate preachers” should be followed into mosques and that FBI wiretaps and spying on immigrants is OK).

Surprise, surprise!

The instant CNN declared Clinton the Democratic winner, up went the posters, the hands, and the yelling, whooping, whistling, and shrieking.

Neither the winners nor the losers have any time to dwell on the results. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are either in Michigan or on their way to Michigan preparing for that primary and for the next Democratic debate in Las Vegas and McCain, Huckabee, and Romney are stomping through South Carolina in anticipation of that state’s Republican primary.

Pollsters Get it Wrong Too, Sometimes

We spoke to Dr. Smith before the Primary, when his educated opinion was that Obama was going to win New Hampshire.

Definitely one of the most interesting part of the trip was listening to Dr. Smith explain how pollsters analyze political campaigns and put them in perspective, comparing and contrasting them with campaigns run maybe decades earlier.

On Tuesday night, he was asked why Clinton transformed into a front runner. He said, “Women shifted … from Obama back to Clinton, where they had been throughout his campaign…” It may have been, he explained, due to the shift in Clinton’s new tone.

Homeward Bound

By this point, I was so happy to be heading back to New York but we all wanted to mark the moment – that we had witnessed history in the making.

Regardless of my exhaustion, it was an extraordinary opportunity. I am honored that I was asked to be a part of that momentous occasion and pleased to have met, traveled, ad worked with this group of talented and fiercely dedicated journalists.

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