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Twin Brother Political Analysts See Open Contest Ahead in 2008 Election

Election fever is high in the United States, even though voters will not go to the polls until November of next year to elect a new president. As was evident in the last presidential election, divisions between North and South and East and West are likely to play a big role in the outcome. Twin brothers Earl and Merle Black, who have built nationwide reputations for their analysis of U.S. politics, especially in the South, have a new book out that focuses on how regional differences may play out at the polls. VOA's Greg Flakus has this report from Houston.

In their new book, Divided America, The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics, twin brothers Earl and Merle Black use statistics, voting information and surveys to paint a picture of a nation divided into five distinct regions. They see the West coast and upper Northeast as firmly Democrat, with the South and Mountain states as solidly Republican. The Midwest is the swing region, with the state of Ohio being the biggest tossup.

Earl Black, who teaches political science at Rice University here in Houston and Merle Black, who teaches politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta, won renown for their studies on the changing South. They followed the rise of the Republican Party in what had once been known as a Democrat stronghold, referred to as "the solid South." In 1994, Republicans took the majority of congressional seats in the South and helped their party seize control of the U.S. Congress.

Now, Earl and Merle Black say, Democrats have responded by consolidating their hold on the Pacific states and the states of the Northeast, which, up until 50 years ago, had been solidly Republican. In a speech to the Houston World Affairs Council, Merle Black noted that Democrat gains in the 2006 congressional election left them with a 44-seat advantage in the Northeast, which will help the party hold control of the lower house of Congress.

"The Democratic Northeast is now trumping, for the first time in American history, it is trumping this Republican strength from the South," said Merle Black. "So that, even though the net number of seat changes is pretty small, if the Democrats can hold their strength in the Northeast, then the Republicans would need to get more than 45 surplus seats in the rest of the country in order to retake the House of Representatives. That is possible, but pretty unlikely."

In their book, the Black brothers say that the entrenchment of both parties in their strongest regions has given new importance to the swing states of the Midwest. Still, they say much will depend on which candidates emerge as the nominees.

An example of how a candidate can possibly break through barriers is provided by former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani, who is leading in some polls of Republican voters. He is a divorcee whose views on such issues such as abortion and gun control are not in line with those of conservative evangelical Christians who hold powerful sway in the South and Midwest. But, in a VOA interview, Merle Black says Guliani could win the Christian conservative vote if the Democrats nominate New York Senator Hillary Clinton or someone else who evangelicals perceive as too liberal.

"While Guliani might not be their preferred candidate or the candidate they would like on their issues, they might wind up voting for him if they think he is better than the Democratic opponent on other issues," he said.

Merle and Earl Black say it is far too early to say how successful any of the candidates will be in their bid for votes among different groups. One factor that may help sort things out early on is the so-called front-loading of primaries, whereby California and some other large states are moving their primaries up to early February.

Earl Black says this will favor the strongest candidates and the ones with the most money.

"The difficulty of raising enough money to be really competitive in these big states that are going in early February is going to put a lot of pressure on campaigns that do not have enormous war chests," said Earl Black. "They are going to have devote a lot of time between now and next February to raising the kind of money to be competitive not just in California, but, it looks like, a number of other big, expensive states and that will, pretty soon, narrow the field on both sides."

Earl Black says one problem with the early primaries could be voter fatigue. If the candidates have been chosen in both parties by the end of February, there will be a long gap for them to fill until the party conventions in July and August, where the formal nomination process takes place.

"If the candidates or nominees are really determined very early on, then the only thing that has not been determined is going to be the identity of the vice presidential candidates," he said. "Well, that is usually something that occupies one month of political time, but not eight or nine months. It is pretty hard to sustain the interest of most voters over that many months."

Earl and Merle Black see an open contest ahead for both the presidency and control of Congress, with control of the Senate being the most contentious. In the end, they say, voters care less about issues than they do about how they see candidates in terms of their abilities and their leadership potential.