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U.S. electorate tunes in to wide-open 2008 race

LOS ANGELES- The U.S. electorate appears to be more engaged in presidential politics than it has been in many years, stirred by the drama of a wide-open campaign, anger at the Iraq war and anxiety over the economy, political observers say.

The trend is especially true among Democrats, galvanized by what they see as an opportunity to retake the White House after eight years on the outside, according to pollsters, academics and media analysts.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks to supporters at a rally at the Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, Florida, January 27, 2008. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

Democratic interest has been heightened by the star power and historic campaigns of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who would be the first woman president, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who would be the first black president and has been compared to charismatic former President John Kennedy.

Republicans have their own stories -- Sen. John McCain, the maverick war hero and Vietnam prisoner of war, making a comeback; Rudy Giuliani, dubbed "America's mayor" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, staking his bid on the upcoming Florida primary; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who would be the first Mormon president; and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister running as a populist while trying to appeal to evangelical Christians.

The lack of a presumptive nominee in either party -- marking the first time in more than 50 years that both are without an incumbent president or vice president in the race -- only adds to the drama, observers say.

"It's an incredible election, like none we've ever seen before, and we're all working around the clock to cover it," said Sam Feist, political director of CNN. "Clearly, the public is fascinated."


The high interest level was evidenced by robust voter turnouts, particularly among young people, during the first state-by-state contests to pick nominees who will compete in the November presidential election to succeed President George W. Bush. Participation in the Iowa caucuses hit a record, with Democrats doubling their turnout from four years earlier.

Enthusiasm is also reflected in the media's months-long coverage of the campaign, including an unprecedented 28 presidential debates televised since last April.

Far from showing signs of election fatigue, viewers are watching in greater numbers, with cable news channels and major network news programs posting ratings bumps this month in the run-up to the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" primaries in two dozen states.

Opposition to the war in Iraq and a sagging U.S. economy are two major factors, pollster John Zogby said.

"There's a lot of anger this year, and anger generates a lot of voter interest," he said.

Young people are more engaged than they have been in many years, spurred in part by growing campaign coverage -- and campaign outreach -- over the Internet.

"Any one of those factors would be enough to increase voter turnout, but when you have all of these factors combined, there's a lot more interest," Zogby said.

Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said turning points like Obama's surprise victory in Iowa, followed by Clinton's comeback in New Hampshire, have helped keep the public's attention.

"I would have thought six months ago there's no way this level of momentum could have sustained itself," he said.

CNN's latest Democratic debate on Jan. 21, featuring a testy Clinton-Obama confrontation, averaged nearly 5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated such event in cable TV history.

That tally amounts to just half the audience tuning in to "American Gladiators" on NBC the same night, but Feist called the debate viewership impressive nonetheless.

"When five million people on a Monday night turn to watch CNN cover a presidential debate, that's extraordinary," he said.

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