WITH next week's US election on a knife edge, it could be the nation's farmers who decide the outcome, writes JAMES WAGSTAFF
The scramble over the keys to the White House is heating up - and farmers could play a key role in determining the winner.
Americans will go to the polls next Tuesday in what is shaping as one of the tightest US presidential elections in decades.
Democrat Barack Obama, the 51-year-old former senator from Illinois elected the nation's first African-American president amid much fanfare in 2008, is seeking a second four-year term in the Oval Office.
But standing squarely in his way is 65-year-old Republican candidate Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, who missed out on his party's endorsement for president four years ago.
According to experts, the election will go down to the wire.
The Democrats are considered slight favourites, with Sportsbet paying $1.36 for an Obama win compared to $3 for Romney.
However, Obama faces a tough battle against history.
Since World War II just one Democrat president - Bill Clinton in 1996 - has been elected for two consecutive terms.
And no president whose job approval rating has dipped as low as 40 per cent (as Obama's did last October) has ever been given another shot as Commander- in-Chief.
On the flipside, of the 25 elections held during the past century the Democrats have won 13 to the Republicans' 12. And it has been 32 years since a Republican toppled a sitting Democrat president - when Ronald Reagan swept 44 of the 50 states in 1980.
While the popular vote is considered too close to call, Obama has emerged as the early front-runner in the battle to secure a majority of the 538 crucial electoral college votes - weighted according to a state's population - required to win office.
CNN currently has him on 237 to Romney's 206. (In 2008, Obama secured 365).
That leaves 95 votes up for grabs in what are considered the "swing states": Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
States in which agriculture plays a key role.
American Farm Bureau Federation deputy executive director Dale Moore told The Weekly Times that while farmers were squarely in the "hearts and minds" of voters, "it has been a while since the agricultural situation played a big role in presidential politics".
He said the reasoning for this was simple.
"Over the past dozen years the agricultural economy - even though there has been a few plateaus - has been a bright spot, particularly when compared to the overall economy," he said.
"So a lot of the time what (farmers) want the government to do is not interfere with the good markets (they have) got going."
Mr Moore, who has been involved in agriculture policy for 30 years, said everything pointed to a "toss-up" election next week.
"I've seen polls that suggest that rural voters tend to lean more to Governor Romney than President Obama," he said. "But by and large, Republican or Democrat, in this country the rural areas tend to be a bit more conservative than the urban-suburban areas."
Chief of staff to three agriculture secretaries during the two-term presidency of Republican George W Bush, Mr Moore said the Obama Government had not been subject to any closer farmer scrutiny than previous administrations.
"They are getting chewed on just as much as I used to get chewed on," he said.
Two issues the Farm Bureau had "pushed back on" during Obama's first term were a proposed increase in Environmental Protection Agency powers and changes to child labour laws.
"We'd joke that if you spilt a glass of water on your lawn, the EPA could declare it a wetland and you'd be in trouble if you sprayed a herbicide on it to kill the dandelions," he said.
Mr Moore said proposed changes to farm labour laws - restricting children aged less than 16 years from working "hazardous" occupations such as farming - were met with hostility as a case of "the Federal Government coming out here and telling me how to raise my kids".
He described the candidate responses to a recent Farm Bureau survey on agriculture policies as "the kind of answers one would expect good, smart politicians going for the big sweepstakes to give us".
Obama vowed to reduce America's deficit "without sacrificing rural economic growth, as the Romney budget would do" and said he was "the only candidate that is committed to strengthening the farm safety net, strengthening rural economic growth and supporting rural investments in clean energy".
Romney claimed "American agriculture needs relief from the Obama Administration's crushing onslaught of unnecessary legislations".
"On day one of my administration, farmers and ranchers would have something they've lacked over the past several years - an advocate," he said.
But Mr Moore said neither responses had "the hair on the back of your neck standing up" and farmers saying "by golly, we've got to vote for this guy, or by golly we've got to vote against that guy".
"Depending on which agricultural sector you're in and which part of the country you're in, if you're having a particular challenge with the Environmental Protection Agency you tend to lean more in one direction," he said.
"And if you are in a rural community and you're benefiting from some of the assistance programs that have been helping because your income doesn't come from agriculture, it comes from some other enterprise that is hard hit by the economy, again there is that kind of tilting."
According to the Farm Bureau, the US is home to 2.2 million farms - about 97 per cent of which are operated by families.
The two richest agriculture states - California and Texas - are all but pencilled in the respective Democrat and Republican columns.
California, with its lucrative 55 electoral college votes, has voted Democrat at every election for the past 20 years while the Republicans have enjoyed a 32-year stranglehold on Texas and its 38 electoral votes.
However, it is a different story in the biggest battleground state, Florida, where agriculture is the second-biggest industry behind tourism, employs 75,000 people and 29 electoral votes are up for grabs.
Florida backed Obama in 2008, but endorsed Bush (Republican) in both 2000 and 2004, after voting for Clinton (Democrat) in 1996 and George Bush senior (Republican) in 1992.
Ohio, which The New York Times predicts will be the most important state this election, is home to 75,000 farms across 5.7 million hectares.
With its 18 electoral votes, Ohio has correctly picked every president since Democrat Lyndon B Johnson in 1964.
Another key battleground state, Iowa - home to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack - ranks as the country's leading producer of corn and soybeans and fifth for cattle and calves. It holds six electoral votes, and has voted Democrat five out of the past six elections.
Mr Moore said at the end of the day there was one thing farmers were looking for from next week's winner: a fair go.
"Our feeling is that (farmers) are willing to contribute to reducing the federal deficit, which is over $1 trillion, all we ask is that when policy decision-makers are going through the process, whether it's in Congress or down at the White House, that they keep in mind that (any spending cuts) ought to be commensurate with our share of the federal budget," he said.