Saturday, May 03, 2008

Tiny Guam has Its Say

Tiny Guam has its say on US presidential outcome
May 3, 2008

On the distant Pacific island of Guam, nearly a day's plane ride from Washington, a few thousand voters seized centre stage Saturday in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination.

Turnout for the Democratic caucus was low early in the day as temperatures hovered around 90 degrees (32 Celsius), but local party officials expect some 4,000 people would vote before the polls close at 8:00pm (1000 GMT).

Although there are only four party votes at stake, each one has now become crucial in an epic clash where Barack Obama leads Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin estimated at 1,738 to 1,599.

The results are expected around 1600 GMT Saturday and there was no obvious pre-election favourite.

The caucus is the only opportunity Guam residents will get to influence the presidential outcome; the island's people, while US citizens, are not allowed to vote in November's election for the White House.

"We're a little island that doesn't matter most of the time because we're thousands of miles away from DC," said local resident Tes Venzon.

"This political event gives us our chance to push for our own local issues, which are largely ignored by Washington."

Guam, which has been a US territory since 1898, rarely steps anywhere near the limelight in US politics, lying as it does right on the other side of the international dateline.

So its sudden high profile on the political scene has prompted some jokes from commentators, as the island is more known as a US military base and scene of some of the bloodiest battles against the Japanese in World War II.

The Western Pacific island of just 540 square kilometres (209 square miles) has about 48,000 registered voters, and residents wanted Obama and Clinton to address its political status and self-determination.

"In this situation in which every single delegate vote counts to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Guam suddenly feels its own political significance," said Guam Democratic Party chairman Tony Charfauros.

"We used to not get this kind of national attention, but when the caucus started coming up, all the issues affecting Guam suddenly received attention in the nation's capital."

Neither Obama nor Clinton visited Guam ahead of the vote but both vowed to address local issues, such as the relocation of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa in Japan and war reparation claims.

"I'm supporting Barack Obama because I think he will be the new face of America, with that kind of mixture and optimism that is exactly what we need. And with a president like that, our status will go up," Miget Tarpley said as she went to vote.

To which Clinton supporter Leah Ortiz retorted: "Hillary's plans for us are more specific.

"Obama's plans for Guam sound like press releases. They're vague. Most of the Obama supporters on Guam are young, college students, many of whom are not registered voters."

One major campaign concern are plans by Washington to transfer thousands of troops over the next decade as it faces base closures in Japan.

The US military owns nearly one-third of Guam, which is home to one of the largest US naval bases in the region, and the island is banking on the buildup to bail it out of its economic woes.

Obama has pledged that local contractors would get the lion's share of the upcoming construction work to build homes and offices for the arriving forces.

His campaign has insisted that the Illinois senator, born in Hawaii, has an instinctive understanding of the problems facing the tiny territory.

Apart from the island's four delegates to the party's nominating convention in August, it also has five so-called superdelegates who can vote for whoever they like.

One of them is Madeleine Bordallo, the island's only representative to the US Congress, who has yet to take sides.

The local Pacific Daily News estimates Clinton and Obama will get at least one each of the superdelegates.

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