Bush hopes for late comeback

But President Bush, in the dying hours of a campaign, pinned his hopes on a ‘come- from- behind’ victory, as several polls showed that the race was narrowing.

The Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats out of the total 435 on offer to grab control of the House of Representatives. A pickup of six seats would hand them the reins of the 100-seat Senate.

“I knew we were going to finish strong,” Mr Bush roared in a hoarse voice, sparking cheers from the Republican faithful in Pensacola, Florida.

“Republicans are going to turn out and it’s going to be a great victory,” he said.

But the Democrats insist they are still well placed in their bid to wrest at least one chamber from the Republicans.

Mr Bush, flayed by Democrats as Iraq teeters on the edge of chaos, again taunted the anti-war message, on the last day of the last national campaign.

“My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision, and the world is better off for it,” he said as supporters chanted “USA, USA” and cheered the death sentence handed down to the former Iraqi dictator.

“The only way we will not win is if we leave before the job is done,” he said. “If you listen for the plan from the Democrats, there isn’t one.”

Polls however suggest a majority of Americans have lost confidence in his management of the conflict, as troops continue to die and violence convulses in the capital Baghdad.

Democrats hope to use a new Washington power-base to probe the administration on the war, and demand a change in strategy.

President snubbed

In one embarrassment for Mr Bush, the Republican candidate to succeed the president’s brother Jeb Bush as Florida governor, Charlie Crist, declined to appear with the president.

“All I know is that yesterday morning they apparently made a decision that rather than being with the governor and the president and 10,000 people in Pensacola, they made a last minute decision to go to Palm Beach,” said Mr Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove.

Asked whether this reflected Mr Bush’s low popularity, Mr Rove replied, “Let’s look at the comparison, let’s see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours notice versus eight or nine thousand people in Pensacola.”

Republicans were cheered by surveys suggesting the gap between the parties was closing.

A Washington Post and ABC television poll showed likely voters favouring Democrats to Republicans by 51 percent to 45 percent. In an October 22 survey, the Democrats had led 55-41.

The non-partisan Pew Research Center found a 47-43 lead for Democrats among likely voters, down from 50-39 two weeks ago.

With most results within the statistical margin of error, the Democrats need almost a clean sweep of the tightest races to grab control of the Senate.

Republicans pinned hopes in their famed get-out-the-vote machinery, which has frustrated Democrats in recent elections.

Both parties swamped battleground seats with volunteers, phone banks and last minute partisan advertising, as Republicans hoped to energise their power base and Democrats eyed an Iraq-war protest vote.

Though Iraq has been the primary campaign issue, voters are also preoccupied with health care, ‘values’ issues like stem-cell research and abortion, the economy and illegal immigration.