Bush faces calamity as swing voters flock to the Democrats

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The Independent US

Independent voters are flocking to the Democrats ahead of next month's mid-term congressional elections, strengthening the prospect of a resounding victory by the party in the House of Representatives, and boosting hopes that it could capture the Senate as well.

According to a poll in yesterday's Washington Post, self-proclaimed independents - who account for a third or so of the electorate - say they will vote for Democrats rather than Republicans in their congressional district by a margin of 59 per cent to 31, usually citing disillusion with war in Iraq as the prime reason.

However, the change of heart reflects no great surge in affection for the Democrats. Half of independents who had changed their minds said their vote would be in protest at Republican policies. Only 22 per cent said they were enthusiastically embracing Democrats.

In recent days, President George Bush has been trying his utmost to change the subject to his successes with the economy. He has used a string of appearances to point to solid growth, more jobs, and a surge on Wall Street which has led the Dow Jones Index to rise above 12,000 points for the first time. Yesterday, his aides summoned a group of conservative talk-radio hosts - crucial for getting out the Republican vote on 7 November - to spread the message to the faithful from a tent on the White House lawn that all is not yet lost.

But an unrelenting stream of bad news, and not only from Iraq, is drowning out such positives as there are. Almost every day brings a fresh blow, be it evidence of chaos in Iraq, a twist in one of the ethics, corruption or sex scandals affecting the party in Congress, or the claims by a former White House aide in a book that administration officials were privately scornful of Christian conservatives. The last potentially alienates a crucial constituency.

Mr Bush's approval rating has slumped again, to 35 and 37 per cent in two polls this week, a level close to record lows and which threatens to tar every Republican candidate by association. It all adds up to bleak reading for Republican strategists. On every score Democrats fare better, from their perceived ability to handle Iraq and deal with terrorism, to their capacity to offer effective leadership.

The "generic" Democratic edge over the Republicans ahead of the Congressional vote stands at 13 per cent - higher than the Republican advantage before the 1994 mid-terms. Then, the Democrats lost a record 52 seats, and with them the party's 40-year-long control of the House.

Subsequent redistricting has reduced the potential for such swings. But many senior Republicans concede that Democrats are likely to make the net gain of 15 seats needed for the narrowest of victories. But a much bigger win could be on the cards, analysts say, involving the capture of up to 25 seats that would leave Democrats with a workable majority. The party is pouring money into some 40 Republican seats it thinks are vulnerable, some in regions like the south-west that once seemed impregnable.

Scarcely less ominous for Republicans is the outlook in the Senate. Until recently it was assumed Democrats would do well - but not well enough to make the net gain of six seats for outright control of the 100-member chamber. Everything is up in the air now, analysts say. Democrats have long held an edge in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Montana. Their candidates are now running neck-and-neck in Republican-held Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee.