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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 22:49 GMT
Has Bush become election liability?
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

After President George W Bush's party suffered a series of blows in US local elections, some are now asking whether he is becoming an electoral liability.

Mr Bush invested political capital in a race that Republicans lost

After months of political unrest, marked by scandals and falling poll ratings, Republicans badly needed some good news from these votes.

What they got was nothing to cheer: A loss in the close-run race for Virginia governor - despite the president's appearance on the campaign trail, defeat in New Jersey, a partial success in New York.

In California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put a series of referendum issues to the electorate - all of them were rejected.

Possibly the most significant vote was in Virginia - where the president's political gamble failed.

'Vivid message'

In a close race for the governorship, Mr Bush went out on the campaign trail to back the Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore. In the event, Mr Kilgore was soundly beaten by Democrat Tim Kaine.

Click to see the President's ratings after major events

"It is always dangerous to read national sentiment in local election results... but a few things seem obvious," the New York Times said in a morning-after editorial.

"Negative campaigning lost its punch. And George Bush's political capital turned into a deficit."

Dr Stefan Halper, a Senior Fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University and a man who worked in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, said the loss in Virginia was "a very vivid message going back to the Republican leadership".

"The thinking of it is that if the president comes he can activate the Republican base and those people who perhaps wouldn't have gone to the polls in fact would go to the polls because they would be animated by what he had to say.

"As it turns out it appears that his appearance activated the Democratic base..." Dr Halper told the BBC.

He added: "In 2006 you have a nationwide election and the White House imagery - positive and negative feelings about the direction of the country - will play into many of those elections."

'No complacency now'

The White House says Mr Kaine won in Virginia because he ran as a conservative - he highlighted his faith and values at a time when Democrats seen as a secular party - and that all of the Democrats' wins can be attributed to local issues, not related to Mr Bush.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Voters dealt Arnold Schwarzenegger a stinging rebuke

Republicans are warning against reading too much into two governorships that started the day in Democratic hands and ended that way, especially in a year without national elections.

"It's not some type of trend," said Republican Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, noting that the Virginia and New Jersey seats were won by Democrats in 2001 when Mr Bush's popularity was high.

Yet he acknowledged the defeats - and said they could help rally this party's base next year when control of Congress and 36 governors' seats are at stake.

"I don't think anybody will be complacent now."

'Culture of corruption'

Predictably jubilant, the Democrats said the results were the first steps toward bigger victories in 2006 and for the 2008 presidential race.

"I believe national Republican politics ... really had an effect in Virginia and California," said Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean.

Voters "don't like the abuse of power, they don't like the culture of corruption. They want the nation to go in a different way".

It is thought unlikely that Democrats will manage to win back control of Congress through next year's mid-term elections. But Tuesday night's results have given them considerable cheer.

For Mr Bush, the chastening poll results will be food for thought as he considers his presidential legacy and what he wants to achieve in his final three years in office.

For Republican colleagues with tough election fights on their hands they will elevate an already heightened sense of anxiety about 2006.

The results will also cause them to ask how they will inoculate themselves should the president's political problems become more contagious.

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