Bush makes frantic final push in tight mid-term poll

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The Independent US

President George Bush embarked on a final and frantic day of campaigning yesterday as America prepared to go to the mid-term polls in what many predict is likely to be a deadlocked election.

The President finished a mammoth burst of campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates, visiting Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and his home state of Texas, all of which have races considered very tight.

In Minnesota, one of the most closely watched contests, the Republican Norm Coleman went head-to-head in a televised debate with former vice-president Walter Mondale, 74, who stepped in to help the Democrats after the incumbent senator, Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash 10 days ago.

But pollsters predicted that the flurry of campaigning, with both major parties stressing the need for the public to "get out and vote", may have little effect on the outcome and that with the exception of several state governorships, the political landscape is likely to look much the same on Wednesday after the results have been declared,

Polls conducted by the Pew Research Centre suggested that the overall congressional race was more or less even, with the outcome to be decided by just one or two very close fights.

The Senate race in Minnesota is one such contest, where Mr Mondale and Mr Coleman clashed yesterday in their only face-to-face debate, less than 24 hours before the polls open. Having had to endure criticism relating to his age, Mr Mondale attacked his opponent's vision of the future, while Mr Coleman held up those comments as evidence of a divisive tone in politics that needs to be changed.

"If I win on Tuesday, the President is going to owe me big time," Mr Coleman said, trying to dismiss suggestions that he would be a puppet of Mr Bush. "We walked through fire to get here."

Mr Mondale countered: "I can be independent. I owe no one when I go to Washington."

The debate had one instant response. Minnesota's outgoing governor, the former wrestler Jesse Ventura, named a member of his Independence Party, Dean Barkley, as interim senator – filling the space vacated by Mr Wellstone's death. He said he had done so because the Independent Party's Senate candidate had been excluded from the television debate.

"Today, three very powerful institutions, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Minnesota media are conspiring to limit the hard-earned rights of ordinary citizens," he said.

Mr Barkley, who could hold the position until January, promised to work with both parties. He said: "I can get along with moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans." Mr Ventura's somewhat capricious move means the Senate is now split 49-49 between the two parties, with two independent candidates – the other of whom, Jim Jeffords, normally aligns himself with the Democrats.

Voters in the 50 states will pick 36 governors and 34 senators and will decide on all 435 seats in the House, currently controlled by the Republicans. Ballots will also include a host of state legislative races and local legislative proposals.

The Pew Centre said that nationally, the economy and other domestic issues were dominating voter concerns rather than the war on terror, Iraq or other foreign issues. This ought to help the Democrats, but the centre said there was surprisingly little evidence of this.

"There's no national trend apparent in this poll or any other this cycle," said Andrew Kohut, the centre's director. "The outcome of this election will be determined on a race-by-race basis with candidate qualities and local issues dominant."

The one place where a distinct shift is predicted is in the balance of state governorships. Democrats hope to pick up between three and seven such offices, giving them a majority and a strong base for the 2004 presidential campaign.