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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008

Hashimoto clings to lead in tight Osaka gubernatorial race


Staff writer

OSAKA — Down to the wire, Sunday's Osaka gubernatorial election continues to be a tight race, with 38-year-old lawyer Toru Hashimoto reportedly holding on to a slight lead over his rivals. But look for a dark horse as 40 percent of voters remain undecided.

Five candidates are running. Hashimoto, a lawyer familiar with the TV talk show circuit, has the official endorsement of the prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party and the support of New Komeito, the LDP's ruling coalition partner. Former Osaka University professor Sadatoshi Kumagai, 63, has the backing of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party). The Japanese Communist Party is throwing its weight behind 57-year-old lawyer Shoji Umeda.

Two other candidates, Seiichi Sugiura, 59, a local businessman, and Masaaki Takahashi, 65, a former junior high school teacher, are running as independents but are considered long shots.

Hashimoto and Kumagai have so far emerged as front-runners. Local media polls taken late last week showed Hashimoto with a slight lead over Kumagai. However, between 35 percent and 40 percent of voters were undecided, and Kumagai was reported to be closing in on Hashimoto by the middle of this week.

The key to victory, both sides agree, will be voter turnout. The last election, in 2004, when current Gov. Fusae Ohta was re-elected, saw a postwar low turnout of only 40 percent. However, with the seemingly strong interest in this election, some media surveys estimate the turnout could even top 60 percent.

"We recognize Hashimoto has a slight lead. Right now, our office predicts about a 45 percent voter turnout. We believe Kumagai will win if more than 50 percent of voters show up at the polls," said Taiichi Yoshimura, a press spokesman for Kumagai.

Top DPJ officials were engaged in a last-minute push for Kumagai, with deputy DPJ chief Naoto Kan in Osaka on Friday to campaign on his behalf.

Hashimoto has managed to take a slight lead in the race despite his rocky start. Initially, he angered many LDP officials after first publicly denying his intention to run — only to change his mind a few days later. The LDP's national headquarters withheld its endorsement of Hashimoto out of concern Osaka voters would see it as interference by Tokyo in local affairs and because some had doubts about Hashimoto's chances.

And New Komeito backed off from an official endorsement of Hashimoto after voters in its main support group, Soka Gakkai, the nation's largest lay Buddhist organization, expressed displeasure over Hashimoto's earlier remark that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons.

Then the Kansai Economic Federation, the region's major business lobby, said it would remain neutral in the election. In 2000 and 2004, the federation supported Ohta, who gave up her bid to seek re-election this time after she was embroiled in money-related scandals.

In addition to Hashimoto's fame as a TV pundit and his popularity with younger voters, Kumagai's lack of charisma appears to have helped Hashimoto overcome these initial handicaps. Some media polls show Hashimoto gets far more support than Kumagai among unaffiliated voters.

"This remains a very close race and despite media reports of a Hashimoto lead, it's impossible to say with any certainty who will come out ahead in the end," said Tsugio Onodera, a spokesman for Hashimoto.



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