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CAMBRIDGE, England — While the world looks on, tens of millions Americans will go to the polls next Tuesday, along with millions of American expatriates, for what is being billed as the election of the century, or at least the most important election in our lifetime. And while non-Americans cannot directly participate, they will be affected by the result.

In fact, non-Americans have already had a substantial impact on how Americans think about their role in the world. Recent CNN debates with expats and Europeans have differentiated between anti-Americanism in general and the unpopular policies of the Bush administration in particular.

Both Democrats and Republicans living abroad have mobilized in vast numbers on both sides of the policy divide. If something is amiss in U.S. foreign policy, Americans living abroad are the first to feel and react to it, along with foreign officials who privately recoil at the prospect of another four years of President George W. Bush.

This has been a hard-fought contest and much mud has been slung, principally from the Republican side of the house. Thoughtful and well-reasoned proposals and arguments have been met with a slew of unsubstantiated assertions, innuendo, outright distortions and boldfaced lies.

For example, on what grounds can Vice President Dick Cheney confidently assert that the country would be unsafe under John Kerry and more vulnerable to a terrorist attack? The New York Times labeled such distortion — as if the mere act of voting for your opponent opens the door to a terrorist attack — totally unacceptable.

Moreover, this mindset has carried over in the way the current administration has conducted foreign policy, demonizing leaders of other countries ranging from members of the “axis of evil” to allies of “old Europe.” No wonder it has been necessary for Democrats to occasionally get down into the muck of the trenches to avoid being swallowed up.

Even the concept of a global test mentioned by Kerry during the final televised debate — by which he meant a respect for the opinion of other nations in policymaking — has been twisted into leaving it up to other nations to decide when and how the United States should act. At a recent night of speechmaking at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, one speaker rightly argued that the problem went beyond Iraq, the war on terror or the economy; it went to the essence of democracy itself and Bush’s conception of it.

How can this president, who constantly talks about bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East, justify demagoguery on the campaign trail? It can be justified if democracy is seen not as a traditional give-and-take process of comprise, persuasion and consensus-building but rather as a with-me-or-against-me vendetta. Foreign leaders who subscribe to this political philosophy, and are out of step with their constituencies as a result, will be called to account as, hopefully, Bush will be on Nov. 2.

Bush’s strong suit is his posing as the protector of American values and America’s role the world. In the closing days of the presidential campaign, look for him to burnish his foreign policy credentials by taking advantage of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s weekend swing through the Far East and by claiming credit for a relatively successful and terror-free election in Afghanistan as well as efforts to flush out insurgents in Fallujah.

Yet Bush won’t talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s men directly, although he will have his diplomats sit at a table and stare the North Koreans down if it improves his electoral prospects.

Just how close this election is likely to be can be seen from the results in 2000. While all eyes were focused on Florida, the outcome in a half-dozen other swing states with more than 50 electoral votes in total, or almost 20 percent of the number needed to win, was decided by as little as 0.5 percent of the vote. The closest was New Mexico, which Al Gore carried by some 300 votes. Three others were Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon with margins of victory on the order of a few thousand votes. Each is up for grabs in 2004. A sixth was decided by just over 1 percent. The ultimate irony would be if Bush won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. That would be a fitting payback for 2000!

A neck-and-neck race is complicated by the fact that there are more than 13,000 voting jurisdictions in the U.S., each with different rules, standards and types of ballots — from paper to punch cards, from touch screens to optical scanners — and, in many cases, without a paper trail to correct for errors.

While all expatriate ballots are of the paper variety, there are reports of expats receiving sample ballots instead of the real thing, ballots that already been filled in, sample ballots, ballots with the wrong candidate name, more than one ballot or no ballots at all. With the clock ticking, what to do can be overwhelming.

Further, under the new Help America to Vote Act, every voter is entitled to a provisional ballot if he or she shows up at the polls, even if not previously registered. The voter’s authenticity will be validated after the fact.

A multitude of Floridas may lurk in the dozen or so swing states, from the Midwest to the Southwest. Nov. 2 could well be just the start of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Election Day could morph into election week, election month or into next year as the first order of business for a newly elected House of Representatives — in which each state would have one vote. We may be headed for extra innings!

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