These are the lowest scores of Mr Bush's presidency, and among the lowest scores of any presidency since systematic polling began in the early 1940s. The only past presidents who came near, or below, 30 per cent in approval ratings, were Harry Truman in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1974 (both of whom did not run again) and Jimmy Carter in 1980 (who lost to Ronald Reagan that November).
Political analysts say that, on the face of it, the numbers are devastating, but also warn that all polls have been abnormally volatile this year. A Times-Mirror poll published yesterday suggested that half of all Americans had changed their minds in the last six weeks. A successful Republican convention in Houston in 10 days' time, a serious mishap for the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton, or some other unforeseen event, could yet send the unusually skittish US electorate galloping in a new direction.
Republican officials say their private poll numbers show the 25- to 30-point lead held by Mr Clinton after last month's Democratic convention is now deflating, though not as fast as Michael Dukakis's similar lead in 1988. They concede that Mr Bush needs a big boost from the Houston convention. There is speculation that the President, who loves surprises, will announce wholesale changes in White House and domestic policy staff, presenting James Baker's anticipated switch from the State Department as the start of a 'clean sweep' approach to America's domestic ills.
Despite the miserable poll figures, and equally miserable portents for the barely recovering US economy, Mr Bush has shown some signs of regaining his political energy and taste for battle. In campaign appearances over the past week, he has finally looked as if he knew he had to fight to remain in the White House. Also, a pattern to the likely Bush campaign is beginning to emerge.
President Bush will counter Governor Clinton's themes of 'youth, change and fresh ideas' with an appeal to traditional morality and social and economic conservatism, painting the Democrat as politically callow, morally untrustworthy and financially spendthrift. 'When they talk about change, that's all you're going to have in your pockets when these guys get through with you,' the President told a conservative audience in Colorado yesterday. He also accused Mr Clinton of planning to levy the 'largest tax increase in history', without mentioning that the Democrat's plans would only affect the top 2 per cent of US taxpayers.
Speaking to a Catholic audience in New York on Wednesday, Mr Bush said: 'A fundamental issue of this election should be who do you trust to renew America's moral purpose . . . If you're looking to renew America's moral fibre, why buy synthetic when you can buy real cotton?' (The line was supplied by Mr Bush's new speech-writer, Steven Provost, who used to work for Kentucky Fried Chicken).
Mr Bush's campaign press officer, Torie Clark, suggested afterwards that Governor Clinton was not religious enough. 'Why don't they have the word God in their platform?' she asked. 'Are they afraid of it?'
Some Democrats see a sinister trend. They are reluctant to write off as a blunder the Bush campaign newsletter this week, repudiated by Mr Bush, which resurrected the question of Governor Clinton's alleged extra-marital affairs. A senior Democrat said: 'The pattern is clear. Stray dogs make the attacks. Bush says it's not his style. The issue is implanted again in the public mind. Then Bush talks about his superior morals.'
Mr Clinton, meanwhile, is once again attracting huge crowds on a resumed bus trip across the US heartland with his running-mate, Senator Al Gore. Carolyn Reid, a farmer who turned out to see the Democrats in Muscatine, Iowa, said: 'I'm a registered Republican but I'm not stupid. I know it's time for a change.'
Governor Clinton, who has become obsessive about responding immediately to Bush campaign charges, used one campaign stop to reply to the President's use of the word 'trust' 29 times in one speech. 'The implication of course was that you couldn't trust the other fella,' Mr Clinton said. 'That's me. I'm the other fella. Before you get elected, they just let you make one decision. My decision was Al Gore. Do you think you can trust me?'
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