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The U.S. presidential election is less than two weeks away. With both candidates running neck and neck, the election is still too close to call. Poll watchers worry that the victor will not be known even after the polls close: dysfunctional voting machinery and legal challenges may hold up results for weeks. This year’s race has lived up to its promise as one of the most intensely fought — and dirty — campaigns in U.S. history. Expect more of the same as the ballot nears.

Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry used the three presidential debates to close the gap between himself and President George W. Bush and make the campaign a real race again. Most opinion polls place the two men in a virtual tie; when one is ahead of the other, it is usually within the poll’s margin of error, meaning that the lead is statistically meaningless.

The closeness of the race is no surprise. The United States is deeply divided between “red” and “blue” states, with only 5 to 10 percent of the electorate undecided. The real battle is for those undecided voters, and both campaigns have pulled out all the stops to win them over. That in part explains the descent into negativism in the campaign, the mud that has been thrown and the dirty tricks that have been exposed.

In addition to the now-famous “Swift Boat” ads attacking Mr. Kerry’s record in Vietnam and the fabricated records about Mr. Bush’s National Guard performance, there are reports of GOP voter-registration groups tearing up Democratic applications. There will be more nasty gambits as election day nears.

There is another explanation for the campaign’s nastiness. Historically, voters that are still undecided at this point in the campaign usually vote for the challenger. Mr. Bush is trying his best to mobilize his conservative base, which means moving away from the center and stepping up attacks on Mr. Kerry. If that negativism turns voters off — and the “ugliness of politics” is one of the most frequent explanations for people choosing not to vote — then it merely shrinks the potential pool of Kerry supporters. In other words, expect still more ugliness as the election approaches.

While Japanese do not vote in the election, we do have a stake in the outcome. U.S. policies from North Korea to Iraq have implications for Tokyo. Look closely, however, and the differences between the two candidates’ policies are more of style than substance. This is especially true of North Korea, where neither candidate has explained his position well. Both men have endorsed bilateral talks within a multilateral framework. Both speak of the need to work closely with allies. Moreover, a Kerry administration would have to guard its right flank against conservatives in Washington: There is little chance that he could cut a deal that would jeopardize Japanese interests. Mr. Bush has certainly shown no inclination to do so.

The close relationship between Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has some worried that Japan might suffer retribution in the event of a Kerry victory. That makes no sense. First, it is hard to understand how supporting the U.S. constitutes grounds for punishment — especially when Washington finds itself isolated. A key theme in Mr. Kerry’s foreign policy is the need to rebuild alliances and repair America’s international image. Penalizing Japan for backing the U.S. is inconsistent with that thinking.

The example of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is instructive. There were fears that Mr. Bush’s “ABC” policy — Anything But Clinton — meant that relations with Britain would suffer because of Mr. Blair’s friendship with President Bill Clinton. In fact, Mr. Blair has forged an excellent working relationship with Mr. Bush. Were it only so in Washington.

Despite Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign pledge to bridge the widening gulf in the U.S. between Republicans and Democrats, the gap only seems to have grown during his administration. The animosity has been helped along by the belief among Democrats that the election was stolen from their candidate. But whatever the explanation, the positions have hardened as civility has diminished.

Forget October surprises. No matter who wins in November, that clash is likely to continue. If there is one near certainty in Washington, it is that incumbents are re-elected, which means that the makeup of Congress will not change much, if at all.

Should Mr. Kerry prevail in the presidential vote, government will be divided, with Democrats in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress. Americans are said to prefer divided government with the checks and balances it produces. But they also dislike the ugliness it creates. From afar it looks equally grim and even a little more confusing: In a democracy, they only have themselves to blame.

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