Dems, GOP Recruit Voters Abroad

"Go, John, go!" shouts a group of American expatriates, some using hockey sticks to give the Kerry ducks a helpful slap downstream. Not surprisingly, the Democrat wins by a waterslide.

The Federal Election Commission (search) wouldn't approve. But the Austrian chapter of Democrats Abroad says the mock race achieved its aim: to awaken the 7,000 Americans in Austria to the approaching U.S. presidential election, and get eligible voters to register.

Mindful of the recount fiasco that put Bush in the White House four years ago, Democrats and Republicans everywhere from Hong Kong to Hungary are aggressively targeting American expatriates, whose absentee ballots could prove decisive in a tight race.

With an estimated 3 million U.S. citizens of voting age living overseas, "We're like the 51st state," said Katie Solon, a Colorado Springs, Colo., native and Democrats Abroad (search) volunteer in Austria. "We're riding a wave of renewed interest."

Strong anti-American sentiment overseas is driving U.S. citizens to register to vote, and both Democrats and Republicans could benefit. On the GOP side, a backlash against the anti-Bush fervor has attracted Republicans, while dismay over Bush's stewardship is getting Democrats who haven't voted for more than 30 years.

Republicans, who claim to dominate the overseas vote by a 3-to-1 margin, are mobilizing to ensure him a second term.

"It's difficult to be an American abroad now with the hatred around the world for the U.S. government and President Bush," said Stephen O'Connor, who runs Republicans Abroad (search) in Hungary, where an estimated 20,000 Americans live. "You need thick skin to be an American."

"What we're seeing, all of us, is this malaise, this feeling of anti-Americanism," said Nancy Galan, chairwoman of Republicans Abroad in Italy, home to an estimated 60,000 Americans of voting age.

Eileen Wilkinson, of the Rome chapter of Democrats Abroad Italy, said people have signed up "who haven't voted since Nixon in 1960 or McGovern in 1972."

In Hong Kong, Republicans Abroad is getting daily inquiries from the 50,000-strong U.S. expatriate community, vice chairman Mark Simon said. Bush's narrow victory over Al Gore in 2000 has driven home the message that every vote matters, he said.

Canada, Mexico and Britain have the world's biggest American communities. Fourth is Germany, with roughly 250,000, and party activists are trying to draw interest with visits by former Vice President Dan Quayle and Kerry's sister, Diana.

"We have 33 Senate races that are going to decide who controls Congress," said Ronald Schlundt, chairman of Democrats Abroad Germany. "Bush is almost certain to win Alaska, but it looks like a Democrat might win the Senate seat there. I registered someone from Alaska the other day."

Overseas voters can find it a hassle to get absentee ballots from their home states, and traditionally haven't played a key role in past presidential elections. Turnout in 2000 was 37 percent among expatriates, compared to 51.3 percent overall.

No one knows just how many Americans abroad intend to vote this time, since the party groups can only give them registration forms to mail to the U.S. county where they voted last.

But election fever runs strong. Democrats Abroad Thailand recently revived itself after lying dormant for 16 years. It now has chapters in Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai, and has participated in conference calls with Kerry and former presidential hopefuls Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and Dennis Kucinich.

"The response has been incredible," said the group's head, Gary Suwannarat.

Peter Kropp, a suburban Washington, D.C., native who works for a cosmetics company in Belgium, didn't vote in 2000.

He registered this year, he said, because he disagrees with the Bush administration's handling of the economy and the gay marriage issue — "and because I'm tired of always having to apologize for American behavior."