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Helicopters, crowds, and cash as Afghan campaign heads into home stretch

Enthusaistic Afghans are greeting presidential candidates on the campaign trial, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're winning over supporters.

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Thousands of supporters mobbed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as he walked out of his helicopter into the boulder- and dust-choked capital of Afghanistan's poorest province.

Hours later, as the leading challenger to Hamid Karzai for the presidency returned to the choppers, his campaign manager faced a smaller – but clearly frustrated – mob: The local politicians who paid to bus the crowds to the event wanted more money.

"Lots of people came [but] you have to pay for their transportation," explained Dr. Abdullah's manager, Saleh Mohammad Registani, later. He says these campaign events – now a daily feature for presidential aspirants as they head toward an Aug. 20 vote – can cost $70,000 to $100,000 a pop. Many cynical Afghans say a lot of that money ends up in local powerbrokers' pockets.

Afghanistan's presidential campaigns have many of the trappings of a Western-style election, from aerial barnstorming of far-flung cities by candidates and their media entourage, to speeches by local pols warming up crowds for the main act.

But what might appear to be grass-roots enthusiasm for the major campaigns turns out to be mainly Afghan "astroturf" – citizen participation that's contrived and sometimes paid for by local power brokers. That makes predicting the election even harder than normal.

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