CAMPAIGN With presidential debate season underway and the electoral map shrinking (only nine states now look truly competitive, compared to about 20 at the beginning of the summer), fewer and fewer voters are calling themselves undecided. A Sept. 29 poll for the Associated Press showed that only about 5 percent of Americans have no idea which way they'll vote on Nov. 2. That's bad news for John Kerry, who trails President Bush by 8 to 12 percentage points in most polls. Among those least likely to be in the "undecided" category are deeply religious voters, who firmly and overwhelmingly back the president. In a close election, the religious vote is enough to determine who occupies the White House for the next four years, prompting Mr. Kerry to sound downright evangelical in some of his ads and campaign speeches. While both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are scrambling to shore up support among churchgoers, the voters they're most aggressively challenging belong to the other's denomination. Mr. Bush needs the backing of socially conservative Catholics, while Mr. Kerry has to turn out his base among mainline Protestants, including the United Methodist Church, the president's own denomination.
HURRICANES Three weeks after Hurricane Frances tore half the roof off Linda Baker's trailer, Hurricane Jeanne ripped off the rest. Since Labor Day, Ms. Baker and her 4-year-old daughter have stayed in a Palm Beach County emergency shelter, as have thousands of other Floridians after last week's storm damaged and left without power over 1 million homes and businesses. Jeanne, the fourth in a bizarre chain of major landfall storms, added another $5 billion in damages to $9 billion from the previous storms for a total projected to top $20 billion. In Jeanne's wake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched the largest recovery effort in its history. Over the past six weeks, hurricanes have damaged more than one of every five Florida homes. Insurance industry experts expect claims this season to surpass 2 million-dwarfing the 700,000 claims filed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. President Bush asked Congress for an additional $7 billion, bringing to $12.2 billion the total possible federal aid bound for Florida and other southeastern states.
IRAQ "Finally a moment of joy," Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said after Iraqi captors freed two Italian women held hostage for three weeks. "Our behavior was unimpeachable," Mr. Berlusconi said. "We dedicated ourselves night and day to obtain this result. All of Italy, majority and opposition, gave a strong sign of unity." But foreigners in Iraq were both relieved at the outcome and worried over potential precedent: Rumor in Baghdad had it that Italian sources paid over $1 million for their freedom, a ransom sure to fuel more kidnappings and beheadings.
SAUDI ARABIA A long, unfruitful year of diplomacy with Saudi Arabia culminated in the United States naming the kingdom one of the world's worst religious persecutors last month for the first time ever. Why did the staid diplomats at the State Department take a harder line this year? Because of evidence that persecution against non-Wahhabi Muslims is even worse than they imagined. Concern is also mounting over the Saudis' export of radical Islam, the ideological fodder for terrorism. Still, further U.S. censure is unlikely in the short run: Few expect the United States to impose on the largest oil producer the sanctions that now are legally possible.
NORTH KOREA In a bid for freedom, 44 people believed to be North Koreans used ladders to scale spiked walls at Beijing's Canadian embassy on Sept. 29. Canadian officials sheltered them in a large events room and provided Korean food and access to washrooms. Chinese authorities asked to have custody; China does not recognize North Korean refugees fleeing famine and political repression, and usually returns them. A day earlier, the U.S. Senate passed the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, which would fund nonprofit rights groups and help refugees. The bill, already passed in the House, also requires a U.S. envoy on human rights, further intensifying U.S. confrontation with a nemesis already locked in multination nuclear arms talks.