Democrats now believe Bush can be beaten

A YEAR today, Americans will be going to the polls to elect a new president in the first "open" election, with neither candidate an incumbent, since 1976. After an unusually early "phoney" campaign through this spring and summer, the race between the two main parties is starting to settle down - and not in a way that was anticipated.

Convinced for months that the best they could hope for was to regain control of the House of Representatives, Democrats are now starting to think that the White House may not be a lost cause after all. Republicans, meanwhile, are beginning to contemplate just the sort of messy contest they had hoped to avoid.

Democrats' earlier pessimism was understandable. Bill Clinton's indiscretions in the White House, they felt, had cast a blight on a Democrat's chance of succeeding him. With the former basketball star Bill Bradley running a plausible campaign, their party seemed to face a potentially divisive contest that could last until the party convention next summer. In George W. Bush, meanwhile, the Republicans appeared to have a candidate with the lineage, the personality and perhaps even the record to unite the right and take the presidential nomination by acclaim.

The past two weeks of frenetic political activity, much of it concentrated in New Hampshire - the state whose primary election follows the "first in the nation" Iowa caucuses in the new year - has done much to change the mood. Democrats came away from watching the first direct confrontation between their two presidential candidates, Vice-President Al Gore and Bill Bradley, at Dartmouth College last week greatly cheered. It was not that they felt the contest would be decided any time soon, but that the party had two candidates who were worthy of the job.

A survey conducted after the forum confirmed that while a majority of those asked expressed a preference for one or the other candidate, they also professed themselves content with either - and so unlikely to flee into the Republican, or non-voting, camp.

At the same time, the odd spoke has started to stick in the hitherto well-oiled wheels of the Bush machine. His non- appearance at the Republican candidates' forum in New Hampshire last week drew venomous jibes from local voters who turned in droves to Senator John McCain. In New Hampshire, Mr McCain's poll ratings are now within 12 points of Mr Bush's, and commentators are increasingly treating him as a viable candidate.

Nationally, Mr Bush continues to dominate the poll ratings, but the gap with Mr McCain is starting to narrow. And if the publishing millionaire Steve Forbes increases his ratings, even by a few points, there could suddenly be the prospect of a true contest on the right.

The tenor of the campaign is also changing. Big social questions, such as health and education, are back on the agenda; so long as the economy flourishes, the main issue will not be, as it was for Mr Clinton eight years ago, "the economy, stupid". This does not necessarily help the Democrats, but it certainly does not harm them either.