US Elections

I was in Washington DC last week, so while Britain slept I was able to watch the first debate of the presidential election.

The one and a half hour debate was watched by more than 67 million people - a larger audience than for any of the debates in the 2008 election, and a quarter of the US population.

The debate was widely seen to have been won by the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.  That's certainly how it seemed to me.  The former governor of Massachusetts was persuasive and personable.

Mr Romney did himself few favours in our country when he visited London just before the Olympics and appeared to criticise our preparations for the games.

But opinion polls after the debate show a narrowing gap.  We should remember that Romney is a serious challenger.

Many of the issues being debated in the US are the same as here.  After the downturn, recovery has been slow, middle incomes have been squeezed and too many people are out of work - although the latest unemployment figures in both countries have shown a welcome fall.

Like us, Americans are debating healthcare, and how the rising cost will be afforded in the future.

Unsurprisingly for a superpower, there's more focus in the US election on international issues and America's role in the world.

Whatever happens in less than a month, on 6 November, the TV debates have been a longstanding part of the US democratic process.

So it seems strange that the equivalent happened here for the first time at the last election - and not without controversy.

It will be interesting to see whether Romney's performance, like Nick Clegg's in our general election, proves to be a flash in the pan - and there are two more debates to go.

Another feature of US politics is more alien to our system.  Endless paid-for TV adverts for the candidates are overwhelmingly negative.  Americans are constantly reminded of why they should NOT vote for someone.

But I think people want to hear reasons why they should vote.  They want to know what a politician believes and what they would do in power.

Romney won the first debate because he said what he stood for.  President Obama, unusually, failed to set out his vision.  That's not a mistake that a leader can make for long.

Christopher N Howarth