Kerry surges ahead in 12 crucial swing states as Bush poll ratings plummet

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The Independent US

George Bush has had a warning shot from the crucial battleground states likely to decide the outcome of the presidential election where his rival John Kerry is surging ahead.

George Bush has had a warning shot from the crucial battleground states likely to decide the outcome of the presidential election where his rival John Kerry is surging ahead.

Less than six months from election day, polls suggest that Mr Kerry is leading the President in 12 of the 16 so-called swing states. In some states the lead is slight, but in places such as New Hampshire, which Mr Bush won in 2000, Mr Kerry has a lead of almost 10 per cent.

Though polls offer only a snapshot in time, pollster John Zogby, who made the latest survey, said if the present leads in these 16 states hold true - and Democrats and Republicans hold on to the states each party won easily in 2000 - Mr Kerry will win with a margin of 102 electoral college votes. In 2000, Mr Bush beat Al Gore by 271 to 267.

"I have made a career of taking bungee jumps in my election calls," Mr Zogby wrote in an op-ed article. "Here is my jump for 2004: John Kerry will win the election ... We are unlikely to see any big bumps for either candidate because opinion is so polarised and, I believe, frozen in place. There are still six months to go and anything can happen. But as of today, this race is John Kerry's to lose."

The battleground states, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin, are likely to prove crucial in deciding who carries the day on 2 November. Republican and Democrat strategists know that in at least 30 states, along with the District of Columbia, the outcome of the vote is a foregone conclusion. But in the battleground states - which were won in 2000 by six percentage points or less - everything is up for grabs.

Not surprisingly, this is where both sides are focusing much of their efforts, and trying to fine-tune their campaigns to reflect local issues, be it the controversial proposal to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear waste dump or else the issue of "guest worker" status for immigrants in heavily Hispanic New Mexico.

The poll of these 16 states will have shaken the President's strategists. As they have watched his approval rating sink to between 41 and 47 per cent - the lowest of his Presidency - his aides say that in the battleground states, the President has the advantage. This new poll suggests that is not the case.

"If these numbers are correct, the Republicans are probably disappointed," Ken Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said.

Some analysts attribute Mr Kerry's surge to biographical ads in these 16 states at a cost of $25m. Experts say they appear to have helped him recover from negative ads paid for by the Republicans which criticised his voting record in Congress and questioned his national security credibility. Adam Clymer, the political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, told USA Today: "Kerry has been doing better lately in the battleground states, and my guess is his ads are very important in that."

At a national level Mr Bush and Mr Kerry are extremely tight and both sides agree that with the country so heavily polarised, the election is going to be close-run. Another poll, by Gallup, places Mr Kerry ahead of the President by 49 to 47, a statistical tie. This is the third poll in which the candidates have been separated by less than the margin of error.

Matthew Dowd, the Bush senior political strategist, said: "I didn't trust the readings on the states that said we were up or said we were down," he said. "I don't think the race has changed much, and I don't think ads are having much of an effect, given all the other news."

Given the impact that issues such as Iraq appear to be having on voters, strategists agree Mr Bush is far more of a victim to events than his rival. With no apparent end to the violence in Iraq, the President has seen his approval rating drop, and drop. Mr Bush's best hopes are for continued improvement in the economy, and that transferring sovereignty to Iraq results in a reduction in violence and enables withdrawal of US troops.