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U.S.: Election Vox Pop -- American Voters Speak Their Minds

Americans are heading to the polls today to choose the man who will lead them for the next four years. It's been a passionate, bitterly fought contest, and polls show incumbent Republican George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, running neck and neck. In the end, many analysts say voter turnout could be the deciding factor, with a record number of Americans predicted to cast ballots. What are U.S. voters thinking, just hours before the polls open? To find out, RFE/RL sent correspondent Nikola Krastev to the streets of New York to gauge public sentiment in that traditionally Democratic city. Meanwhile, in the small New Hampshire hamlet of Dixville Notch -- famous for casting the country's first ballots -- one candidate has already emerged as the favorite.

New York, 2 November 2004 -- 125th Street in Manhattan is a major thoroughfare that cuts right through the middle of Harlem.

Harlem went through a remarkable transformation in the 1990s, when fresh infusions of capital turned it from a run-down, drug-infested part of the city into a desirable destination for businesses and home owners. U.S. President Bill Clinton chose Harlem for the site of his post-presidential offices after the end of his second term in January 2002.

Sixty-seven-year-old Helene Miranda owns a small beauty parlor and has been living in Harlem since the 1960s. Miranda says the major motivations for her to vote in 2004 are the economy and the war in Iraq: "First of all, the economy is very bad. Second, we had no business over in Iraq. And if you look around, I mean, they're sending jobs abroad when they should do something for their own country. So, it's very important that we get Bush out of there. Education, health care, jobs, security -- just a number of things. You know, you have housing problems here, and there shouldn't be. These empty buildings -- they're going up as condos. Do something for the homeless [instead]."
"I know that we're struggling in a few areas, but I do believe that [Bush's] policies are better than Mr. Kerry's."

Bordering Harlem in northwestern Manhattan is the campus of Columbia University, one of the prestigious Ivy League schools. Roy Bucanan is a 27-year-old graduate student in biology who will be voting for the first time. When asked what he would like to see changed in the United States in the next four years, he replied: "Well, more cooperation with overseas governments. I'd like to see that. I'd like to see maybe less aggression, more intelligence, more thought on the actions and the reasons behind them. I don't trust George Bush's motives, I guess, in general, or his administration. To be specific, I don't think [invading] Iraq was the best idea. I think there were better ways to achieve our goals [than] invading Iraq."

Shannon Morane is 18. She wears a colorful two-piece Navajo Indian outfit and has spiky, rainbow-colored hair. Tiny silver rings penetrate her nostrils. Morane, a first-year art student, says she doesn't trust the American media and has been gathering her information about the election mostly through foreign sources on the Internet: "I always usually go for the Independent Party [candidate], but I think that would be a waste of a vote at this point because it is between those two candidates. I've been happy with Democratic presidents in the past, and Kerry seems to know a better way to go about this. I am going [to vote] with a bunch of people who have voted before, so they are going to help me through it. I think it's very important to vote. You need a voice."

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the New York Stock Exchange, which is located on Wall Street, was closed to visitors. Metal fences now surround the major institutions in the financial district, while heavily armed police with dogs patrol the area.

Elaine Cordeaux is a 47-year-old attorney for one of Wall Street's financial companies: She spoke with RFE/RL.

RFE/RL: "What's the difference here on Wall Street between 2000 and now? It seems to me like a war zone right now."

CORDEAUX: "I don't think it's a war zone. I think people are more engaged. They care more about making the right decision happen, instead of the way it was stolen in 2000. The president needs to tell us the truth about his decisions. He needs to have people that work for him -- who will talk back to him, that will disagree with him, that will tell him the truth. And then the policies will be based on honesty instead of deception."

Bush has already scored a symbolic victory, capturing the first Election Day votes in a tiny New Hampshire hamlet whose residents traditionally cast the first ballots in the U.S. presidential race. Dixville Notch is about 25 kilometers from the Canadian border. Its 26 registered voters backed Bush over Kerry by a margin of 19 to 7.

Jeff McIver, a Dixville Notch voter, told Reuters that he's worried about a change in leadership at such a crucial time: "I voted for President Bush because I believe in his policies regarding the war, and the economy. I don't feel it's the right time to change leaders in the country.

Tom Tillotson is an election official in Dixville Notch, who says he also voted for Bush: "I voted for President Bush primarily because I believe that the number one issue facing this nation is the war. It's a war unlike we've had ever in our past, and it's one where I think the process of changing leadership in this middle of this war would be a very bad mistake for this country."

One contender who's getting little serious attention is consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate who is running on his Progressive Party ticket.

New Yorker Daniella Liebling is a Nader supporter who says she doesn't believe the criticism from Kerry supporters that a vote for Nader essentially means a vote for Bush: "I've supported Nader all along. I'm one of those people who...I've never voted for a Democrat in my whole entire life. I've been very disappointed with them. So all those rumors that all those Nader votes would go to Kerry, in my eyes, that's just not true at all."

Nader is on the ballot in 34 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Although nationwide opinion polls put Nader's support at just around 1 percent, he says he has never contemplated dropping out of the race.

In Dixville Notch, meanwhile, Nader did not receive a single vote.

(Reuters contributed to this story.)