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American Expatriates Closely Watch US Presidential Race - 2004-10-06

The tight race between Republican President George W. Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry is being closely followed by the four to 10 million Americans living overseas. Democratic and Republican activists say they are witnessing record turnouts at their vote drives and rallies.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady stream of Americans flocked to a voter registration rally, hosted by Democrats Abroad at an American-style restaurant in downtown Paris. Although Democrats Abroad is a partisan group supporting Democratic candidates, the rally was aimed at getting expatriates of all political leanings to register to vote in the November presidential elections.

Judging by the turnout in France and in other countries in recent months, these sorts of efforts are succeeding. Just ask Louise Meyers, a Democrats Abroad volunteer who has been manning voter registration booths in Paris for the past decade.

"We have been swamped, as you can see," Ms. Meyers says. "People have been coming one after another. They are coming from schools. But also older people who have got their ballots, who are worried about it. And who really want to vote. Everyone wants to vote in this election."

From Paris to Budapest, from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong, Republican and Democratic activists say American expatriates are turning out to register for the November elections.

Like their counterparts at home, Americans overseas appear to be motivated by strong feelings, pro and con, about the Bush administration and about the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans Abroad associations are also active as never before. And a rash of new Internet sites, making voter registration easier and offering their views on the candidates, are revolutionizing this year's campaign.

Since 2000, Democrats Abroad has more than doubled its presence, from 30 to 73 countries. There is even an Iraq chapter, nicknamed Donkeys in the Desert.

Republicans Abroad, which has 50 overseas chapters, has also noted a spike in voter registration this year, according to Robert Pingeon, head of Republicans Abroad Europe.

"We are looking at a trend of dramatically increased activity relative to four years ago," Pingeon says. "Four years ago when the polls showed the election was becoming really close, it was well into October. And prior to that, people were not as sensitive to how close the election would be."

This year, expatriate Americans have been registering well ahead of time. There are no accurate statistics of just how many have signed up to vote, but both sides are estimating the numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

With the two presidential candidates running neck and neck in the polls, observers say Americans abroad are keenly aware their votes may make a difference in the election. They are aware that a number of experts credit the expatriate vote for turning the tables in Florida, and handing Mr. Bush a razor thin victory in the 2000 presidential race.

So even expatriates, like 65-year-old Paris resident Benny Luke, have decided to vote in the November election.

"Since I have never lived in America, I just never got into voting. I do not think that my vote really counted. I do this time. I really do not want to see Bush come in again," Mr. Luke says.

Some Republicans feel just as strongly about this election. At a recent Republican rally in Paris, one 29-year-old lawyer from Minnesota, who would only give his first name, Jake, said he believes his vote is important.

"These elections are crucial - probably the most crucial elections I have ever voted in," Jake says. "I fear what Kerry might do. He finally took a position on Iraq and its a pretty scary position at that. It implies early troop withdrawal. It sends the wrong message to everyone."

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are well aware of the importance of the overseas vote this year. Both have sent high-profile campaigners on overseas tours to rally support.

Nancy Bush Ellis, President Bush's aunt, was at the Republican rally in Paris. Like many others, she says the expatriate vote could help determine who wins in November.

"It certainly does make a difference. So many states were close last time, and a few votes made a difference. So they are after every vote they can get," she says.

No one can say for sure just how many Americans live overseas, much less guess their party affiliation. Republican activists say the vast majority of expatriates are Republican party supporters.

But Sharon Manitta, the London-based spokeswoman for Democrats Abroad international, disagrees.

"There is a lot of mythologies about people living overseas and how they vote," Ms. Manitta says. Things that have continued through since the 1950s, when people assumed everyone who was not military overseas was a rich Republican. We know that is not true anymore. If it ever was."

Ms. Manitta says a number of independent and Republican voters overseas say they will be voting for Mr. Kerry this year. Whether the expatriate vote will actually make a difference this year is anybody's guess. But it is clear expatriates around the globe will been following the November election results closely, like their fellow citizens in the United States.