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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 November 2006, 06:07 GMT
Velcro president faces final test
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

"All politics is local," according to a tried-and-true Washington cliche. But surely Tuesday's mid-term elections are first and foremost a referendum on George W Bush.

If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, to whom nothing seemed to stick, W has become the Velcro president, to whom just about everything sticks. Call it the price of decisive leadership.

Bush campaigning in Texas
Mr Bush has only been allowed to campaign where audiences love him
Only a day before the elections, George Bush was campaigning in Pensacola, Florida - the state his own brother has governed with resounding success - and the Republican hoping to succeed Jeb Bush did not turn up to appear with the president.

The only TV ads that feature the commander-in-chief have been those fielded by his opponents.

The only states where the president, who is a fabulous campaigner, has been allowed to exercise his sleeveless charm on the voters are those places where the audiences already love him, like Kansas.

Either the White House has been asked to stay away, or it has been trying to plug holes which have suddenly sprung up in places where they never thought they would have to spend time or money.

'Political capital

The president's second term was not supposed to be like this.

The drip-drip of daily casualties, the spectre of civil war, the aching sense of helplessness has sapped the administration's confidence and the voters' goodwill
The day after his victory over John Kerry, with the president's Grand Old Party in firm control of Congress, an energetic George Bush announced he had "earned political capital and intended to spend it".

The president broke open his political piggy bank in an effort to overhaul social security, the state pensions system.

Reform may have been a good idea, even necessary, but the attempt to secure it was a disaster. Within months, the president's hard-to-understand plan was gathering dust on a shelf.

And greater setbacks and indignities loomed, costing whatever pennies of political capital Mr Bush had salvaged from the social security debacle.

Hurricane Katrina produced shocking levels of devastation that were surpassed only by mind-boggling incompetence from government at every level.

Joe Negron by campaign placard in Florida (Foley's name is still on the ballot(
The Foley scandal has left a once safe Republican seat in doubt
And then there was the corruption - financial and, apparently, sexual. The Republican enforcer in the House, Tom "the Hammer" DeLay, was forced out of office. At least three other Republican congressmen came under one investigation or another. One is already in jail and another seems headed that way.

Add Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who sent lascivious e-mails and instant messages to teenage Congressional pages, and you have the making of a Velcro presidency.

Crumbling keystone

The bad news has left the GOP in a bad mood - this campaign has been conspicuous for the amount of back-biting within Republican ranks.

The Democrats should have the most to gain, but they are caught in the headlights of Iraq, much like the rest of the nation - their biggest problem is that they don't have a plan
Social conservatives are angry that the president hasn't done more to advance moral crusades like his proposed amendment to ban gay marriage.

Fiscal conservatives are livid about pork-barrel spending in Congress, $250m "bridges to nowhere" and a budget deficit of truly blushing proportions.

Neo-conservatives like Richard Perle and Ken Adelman are, it seems, now apoplectic about the way Iraq was mismanaged and how their dream of creating a democracy in the heart of the Middle East was botched by the administration's stinginess with troops and resources.

If the administration is an arch, Iraq has been the crumbling keystone.

image showing Bush's poll rating

The drip-drip of daily casualties, the spectre of civil war, the aching sense of helplessness has sapped the administration's confidence and the voters' goodwill.

The Democrats should have the most to gain, but they are caught in the headlights of Iraq, much like the rest of the nation.

Their biggest problem is that they don't have a plan.

The Republicans' biggest problem is that the Democrats may not need one - they have been taking the advice of the late brass-knuckled Republican strategist Lee Atwater: "If your opponent is busy shooting himself, don't get in the way!"

Although the entire country is electing representatives on Tuesday, and two thirds of states are choosing senators, control of the legislature will come down to about seven Senate races and perhaps 25 House seats out of 435.

Nationally, the race has become a battle between the Democrats' anger and the Republicans' organisation.


The latest polling data suggests that the gap between the two parties has been narrowing. After months of solid leads for the Democrats, as the clock ticks down, more Republicans may feel suitably energised, alarmed or guilty to get off their sofas and vote.

From automated "robo-calls" designed to annoy the other party's voters to negative television campaigning, this election has become a textbook case of scraping the bottom of the election ballot box.

Republicans privately admit they expect to lose the House, but they hope to hold the Senate. That could hamstring the president, leaving him a quacking lame duck.

435 seats - all being contested
Republicans hold 230 seats; Democrats 201; one seat independent; three vacant
Democrats need to win net 15 seats to win control of House
100 seats - 33 being contested
Republicans hold 55 seats; Democrats 44; one independent
Democrats need to win net six seats to win control of Senate

But remember divided government is the norm in the US. In the last century the president has had an opposition Congress twice as often as a sympathetic one. That need not prevent a president from getting things done.

Bill Clinton passed his ground-breaking welfare reform two years after the shock of a Republican tsunami - he learnt how to work with Congress and that made him a better president.

Can George Bush, the conviction politician, become a Clintonian triangulator in his last two years of office?

Some doubt it. And yet it may be in his best interest. After all, the Republican Congress has not done George Bush any particular favours in the past two years.

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