On the most important day of Democratic primary voting so far, John Kerry, the front-runner, received a boost with an opinion poll showing he would clearly defeat President George Bush if the election were held now.
The finding, in a USA Today/CNN survey, was that the Massachusetts senator would beat Mr Bush by 53 per cent to 46 per cent. It was especially important because it fed into Mr Kerry's biggest strength on the campaign trail the perception by Democratic voters that he has the best chance of winning back the White House in November.
The survey, which reflects a rough fortnight for the administration, is further proof of how, suddenly, a previously impregnable Mr Bush looks vulnerable. For the first time since he took office, the President's overall approval rating, as measured by Gallup, has dropped below 50 per cent.
A month ago, as the White House still basked in the capture of Saddam Hussein, Mr Bush's performance was approved by 60 per cent of the electorate. The rating has now fallen to 49 per cent, while the number of those disapproving has climbed to a record 48 per cent.
Things have started going badly for the White House, and its every wrong step and failure has been magnified by non-stop hammering from the Democratic candidates vying for the President's job.
Mr Bush's State of the Union address a fortnight ago was widely judged as poor. The debacle over Iraq's banned weapons has hurt Mr Bush's image as a safe pair of hands on national security issues and called into question his trustworthiness, hitherto one of his strongest cards. In the poll, public support for invading Iraq has for the first time dropped below 50 per cent, to 49 per cent.
On the home front, this week's budget projection of a record deficit of $521bn (£283bn) for this year, followed by smaller - but still massive - deficits for the rest of the decade, has come under harsh fire not just from Democrats but from economic conservatives in Mr Bush's own party, appalled at the way federal spending has been allowed to rise across the board.
The administration's image of financial honesty took another beating with the revelation that Mr Bush's new Medicare bill would cost at least a third more than the advertised price tag of $400bn. Here too the critics have come from Republican as well as Democratic ranks.
The combination of a faltering presidency and a surging candidacy has put Mr Kerry, all but written off before Christmas, in a commanding position as the battle for his party's nomination spreads out across the country.
As voting began yesterday, he was ahead in the polls in five of the seven states holding primaries. Mr Kerry holds a wide lead in Michigan, whose caucuses on Saturday may prove the last stand for Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and front-runner for most of 2003, and has sizeable advantages in big states including California and Florida.
Looking ahead to the autumn battle, Bush strategists are already trying to portray Mr Kerry as an archetypal "Massachusetts liberal", an elitist out of tune with mainstream America. But the charge may be hard to pin on a man with a taste for high-risk sports such as motorcycling and windsurfing, and who was a war hero in Vietnam.
Indeed, Mr Kerry hinted this week that he may make Mr Bush's Vietnam record or lack of one a campaign issue.
Mr Kerry told a pre-election rally in Arizona, one of the seven states voting today that Mr Bush and the American military should settle the controversy over whether the President fulfilled his service requirement in the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s, .
The question of whether Mr Bush went "Awol" to help a political campaign in Alabama remained "open", Mr Kerry said.Reuse content