The US Presidential Elections: Bush fights to secure friendly states as polls tighten

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MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA - In a campaign as troubled as the President's, this was a good rally. He fumbled his best line - about Bill Clinton wavering on the Gulf war - but otherwise touched all the required buttons: trust, taxes and more trust. It was early Saturday outside a shopping mall in Montgomery, and George Bush, doubtless buoyed by new polls showing Mr Clinton losing some of his lead, was, for him, in energetic form. The 10,000-strong crowd, all white and heavily Republican, responded in kind, cheering his every word.

Later, at a high school in Lafayette, Louisiana, the President admitted it. 'You caught me on an up-day,' he declared. 'I have always believed it, we are going to win.' Then he did again what he had been doing all day: he lashed the media for bias and noted his favourite Republican bumper sticker: 'Annoy the media, re-elect George Bush'.

Just maybe, with his relentless attacks on the trustworthiness of his opponent, Mr Bush has at last struck a seam among voters. The most surprising of the new polls, published yesterday in the New York Times, had Mr Clinton leading by just 45 per cent over 40 per cent for the President. And though it is Ross Perot, the third candidate, who is gaining ground, there is also evidence of a jump in negative sentiment about Mr Clinton.

'The Americans forgive, but they are entitled to have something other than waffling and a pattern of deception as President of the United States,' Mr Bush told the Montgomery rally, before scrambling the story of how Mr Clinton, at the start of the land war in the Gulf, had said that while he opposed it he would in the end have voted with the majority in Congress supporting it. The way the President told it, the tale was incomprehensible.

He had more success pursuing his claim that the Clinton spending plans would mean tax increases not just for the very rich, as the Governor claims, but for the middle classes too. 'The guy talks about change - that's all you'll have left in your pocket. Watch your wallet, America. This guy is coming after you. But I'm not going to let him do it.'

But one poll does not make a victory, and, close-up, the Bush campaign still smells of desperation. You can sense it in the rhetoric - in Montgomery it entered, albeit out of the President's earshot, into discussion about Mr Clinton's sexual attributes - and even in the choice of states being visited.

All four states visited during Friday and Saturday - Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama - are ones that voted heavily for Mr Bush in 1988 and, by rights, should be his to count on again. This year, none of them is secure, forcing him to pay them attention and diverting him from what should be the battleground states in the industrial Midwest.

He does, at least, have the powers of the incumbency on his side. In Louisiana, in a warm setting sun and against the backdrop of an oil-drilling rig, Mr Bush signed a new energy bill that promises to create 45,000 new jobs in the industry next year. In Miami, on Friday night, he attended a rally of Cuban-Americans, to sign legislation to tighten the trade embargo against the Castro regime.

It is just conceivable that the Cuban- American community, always fervently pro-Republican, will deliver the margin of victory for the President in Florida. Winning the 'sunshine state', which offers 25 electoral votes, is vital if he is to have any chance of re-election.