Bush rattled by surge for Kerry as re-election hopes take a dive

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The Independent US

The surviving Democratic candidates may right now be fighting each other - but George Bush's handlers are suddenly so nervous about his re-election prospects that the interview-shy President will make a rare, hastily arranged appearance today on a leading Sunday talk show.

Half overshadowed by the hue and cry of the battle for the Democratic nomination is the fact that Mr Bush has hit the rockiest patch of his presidency - and the intelligence débâcle over Iraq's alleged weapons is only one of the reasons.

Once regarded as a virtual certainty to win in November, Mr Bush has been hit by multiple setbacks, ranging from the spiralling budget deficit and the failure of the recovering economy to create jobs to a renewed controversy over his military record during the Vietnam War. Those woes have been compounded by a dismal State of the Union speech - normally a powerful election-year platform for an incumbent president - and a constant battering from his Democratic rivals on the campaign trail.

The slump is apparent in a rash of polls. According to the Associated Press, the President's overall approval rating has dropped to 47 per cent, from 56 per cent a month ago, while the number of those saying they would definitely vote for someone else jumped to 43 per cent, compared to just 37 per cent planning to vote for Mr Bush in November.

Astonishingly, when the opposition party has not even settled on a challenger, two polls show Mr Bush losing a theoretical match-up with John Kerry, the current Democratic front-runner, by margins well beyond the statistical margin of error.

Matters may quickly change when the vaunted Republican attack machine swings into action, and when the Bush-Cheney campaign starts dipping into its $100m-plus (£55m) war chest - eclipsing anything the Democrats can currently muster. But for the moment the White House is scrambling. A measure of its unease is that Mr Bush has decided to appear today not on a sycophantic outlet such as Fox News, preaching to the long-since converted, but on NBC's flagship talk show Meet the Press, hosted by Tim Russert.

Mr Russert is regarded as among the most searching of US political interviewers. But the White House plainly calculates the benefits to be gained from a solid performance outweigh the risk. Mr Bush's most important goal is to regain his reputation as a straight talker, presenting the unvarnished truth. Not only have missing Iraqi weapons eroded his image of trustworthiness. The latest budget forecasts, predicting a steady decline in deficits from 2004's record $521bn, have been assailed as a work of fiction.

Republican fiscal conservatives, appalled by how Clinton-era surpluses have been frittered away, have publicly criticised the White House's profligate ways. They are particularly enraged by mendacious accounting for Mr Bush's reform of the public healthcare programme Medicare - billed at $400bn in December but which, it now transpires, will cost at least a third as much again.

By contrast, Democrats are showing a remarkably united front, reflecting the party's over-riding goal of defeating Mr Bush whichever candidate emerges as standard-bearer. For the moment, that man looks likely to be Mr Kerry.

The Massachusetts Senator was heading for a resounding win in yesterday's important caucuses in Michigan, the first big industrial state involved in the contest for the nomination.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, had a chance of reviving his unravelling candidacy in Washington state last night, but Mr Kerry is set for another win in today's caucuses in the north-eastern state of Maine.

After his resurrection from the politically near-dead in Iowa, Mr Kerry has gone from strength to strength, winning the New Hampshire primary then five of the seven states that voted last Tuesday.

Money and endorsements are flooding in, driven by the conviction that Mr Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war hero and 20-year Senate veteran, has the policy credentials and the national security stature to defeat Mr Bush later this year. His main rivals are Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and retired general Wesley Clark. Realistically, however, each must win at least one of Tuesday's two southern primaries in Virginia and Tennessee to stay in the race.