ASSEMBLY ELECTION 2003: War Won the Fight for Headlines in Extraordinary Campaign for Votes; `We Couldn't Get a Word in Edgeways with All the Talk about Baghdad, Basra and Kuwait' - Rhodri

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Byline: Martin Shipton

RHODRI MORGAN sat in a pub in his Cardiff West constituency yesterday lunchtime contemplating the strangest election campaign he's ever been involved in.

As he drank a pint of Bass and ate The Conway's house curry, Mr Morgan said, ``It's been an extraordinarily unusual election. It's been a very odd four or five weeks in which the first three-and-a-half weeks were totally dominated by the war.

``We couldn't get a word in edgeways with all the talk about Baghdad, Basra and Kuwait.

``If you weren't a journalist embedded with the Army in Iraq, no one wanted to hear from you. We couldn't get any journalists to embed with us, that's for sure.

``The Prime Minister's visit to Rhondda was something of a turning point. It confirmed that the war was over, both for the country and for him too, I think.

``The second phase of the election campaign has been entirely different: I went for seven days without a single person raising the war, anywhere in Wales I went.

``In a way the fact that the first part of the campaign was so overshadowed has made it easier to maintain people's interest in the past 10 days.''

Mr Morgan is unapologetic for keeping his views on the war to himself.

``In Scotland the ragged edges of devolution make defence and security matters of some relevance to the Parliament, but that is not the case in Wales.

``In the aftermath of the war, however, it may very well be that we at the Assembly will be asked to offer advice about setting up devolved bodies in Iraq. It will be easier to do that because we said nothing about the war.''

Asked about the impact of Tony Blair's fleeting involvement in the election campaign, Mr Morgan was frank: ``I think there were positives and negatives.

``Some people have developed an intense distaste for him because of the war, while others feel that he has been totally vindicated and in some cases have switched their votes from other parties.

``So far as I'm concerned his visit was useful because it demarcated the two chapters of the campaign.''

Rather than Mr Blair, it was Rhodri Morgan himself who was projected as a national leader during the campaign. A poll earlier this week gave him a 65% approval rating among Welsh voters, way ahead of his par t y.

Mr Morgan said, ``During the campaign we have been encouraging people to think of the election as very similar to a UK general election.

``Who do they want to lead Wales? It's not just a question of voting for a local candidate, it's about who will be in charge of the government.

``Then we have been stressing that people should vote Labour twice - in their constituency and on the regional list.

``Although we have been criticised over this because in some parts of Wales we have no chance of winning list seats, we couldn't possibly have sent out a split message by saying vote for us twice in some places but not others.

``I'm sure the Liberal Democrats would have liked us to.

``But some people will split their vote. …