Despite odds, Bush is wresting defeat from the jaws of victory

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The Independent US

Before the US party conventions, the conventional wisdom was that this Presidential election was George W Bush's to lose. Four weeks later, the same conventional wisdom holds that the Republican candidate may have managed, despite all the odds, to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory.

Before the US party conventions, the conventional wisdom was that this Presidential election was George W Bush's to lose. Four weeks later, the same conventional wisdom holds that the Republican candidate may have managed, despite all the odds, to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory.

The opinion polls which put him well ahead for months now show him lagging; some of his policy positions have had to be reworked in the light of the campaign's realities; and the candidate, once nicknamed "The Bombastic Bushkin," seems a little uncertain of himself.

This has been only the first official week of the US Presidential election, and there are 72 days to go until the electoral test of Mr Bush against Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. But whoever is ahead in the polls by the end of September is usually the winner. Mr Gore came out of the conventions with considerable bounce. Mr Bush seems discomfited.

There is a passing similarity between Mr Bush's position and that of Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts who fought the 1988 election campaign against George Bush the elder, father of the candidate.

Mr Dukakis came out of his party convention well ahead of Mr Bush; but the Republicans held their convention, Mr Bush surged and Mr Dukakis was nowhere.

Mr Gore has objective advantages, and those look increasingly prominent. The economy is still strong, and the risk of inflation - which might have dented the image of prosperity - has been discounted even by the US Federal Reserve, which held interest rates steady last week.

Mr Bush, as a state governor, has little experience of national policy and Mr Gore is a former senator as well as vice-president.

But Mr Bush may have made serious miscalculations. One of the central planks in his campaign is a massive tax cut which he says is aimed at all Americans, and critics charge is just for the rich. Whatever the truth, the evidence is that tax cuts are not resonating.

Even when Mr Bush was campaigning earlier this year in New Hampshire - the state most likely to clamour for tax cuts - the idea was frequently questioned by sceptical Republicans. It is not that people don't want more money, but the US system has other pressing needs. "A series of Los Angeles Times polls this year show that voters by almost a three-to-one ratio prefer use of government surpluses for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and debt reduction, rather than tax cuts," said the newspaper.

"I think there's some appetite for it,'' said Ray LaHood, a Republican Congress- man last week. "But I think he should also be talking about (being) able to pay down the debt." Mr Bush has admitted that perhaps he needs to explain the idea a little more.

Mr Bush has come back from behind before, when John McCain beat him in the New Hampshire primary. That left the Bush camp momentarily disoriented and they seemed confused. They came back to win - but they did so in South carolina, a bulwark of conservatism. And they did it by turning sharply negative, which is often the gut response of Karl Rove, Mr Bush's campaign guru. Things will be trickier this time.

The picture of Mr Gore triumphant is less solid when the individual states are considered. The winning candidate must gain a majority of votes in the electoral college, which means securing the biggest states.

One poll last week showed Mr Bush with 23 states and a winning margin. Mr Gore has California, the largest state, all but sewn up, according to the latest polls; but elsewhere he is still fighting hard.

Some clues to the big battlegrounds can be gained from the states where both candidates are airing their television advertisements in the next week or so. Amongst other states, Mr Gore's money is going in Illinois, which was key to Mr Clinton's victory in 1992, and Florida, a Republican state where Mr Bush's brother Jeb is the governor, but which Mr Clinton won in 1996.

If he can secure those, as well as California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, then he is well on the way to the White House.

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