US President George W. Bush was to wrap up his campaign blitz yesterday with rallies in Florida, Arkansas and Texas as midterm US elections shaped by the conflict in Iraq headed to a hard-fought finish.
Bush was using the last day of his 10-state campaign swing to flush out GOP and swing voters. He hit the campaign trail for the fifth consecutive day, traveling to states where his advisers believe he can best help fend off the Democratic threat to take over Congress and end up with a majority of governorships for the first time in 12 years.
"I'm now asking you when you go forth to find fellow Republicans and say you've got a responsibility to vote, but while you're doing it, don't overlook discerning Democrats and open-minded independents," Bush shouted at a rally on Sunday in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Bush seized on the death sentence handed down to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein Sunday to reinforce the case for the war in Iraq that nearly 60 percent of Americans now say is not worth fighting for.
"Today, we witnessed a landmark event in the history of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi high tribunal," Bush told cheering supporters at the Nebraska rally.
One day before today's vote, dozens of congressional races were too close to call and two national public opinion surveys favored Democrats overall but suggested a late burst of energy among Bush's Republicans.
Bush was in Nebraska and Kansas on Sunday as part of an 11th-hour political rescue mission for struggling Republican candidates facing unexpectedly strong Democratic challenges in part because of anger at the war in Iraq.
White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed as "preposterous" any suggestion that US and Iraqi officials manipulated the timing of the sentence to help the Republicans and said it was "absolute proof" that Iraq now possessed an "independent judiciary."
Democrats hailed the sentence against Saddam but warned it would not solve the challenges US forces face in Iraq, where a raging insurgency and escalating sectarian strife have fed a rising US death toll.
The Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats out of the total 435 in play today to control the House. They hope for a gain of six Senate seats out of the 33 at stake that would give them the edge in the 100-member upper chamber.
While expert forecasts of a Democratic victory in at least one and possibly both chambers have heartened the opposition party, two new national polls showed their once double-digit advantage sharply narrowed in recent weeks.
The Washington Post and ABC TV poll showed likely voters favoring Democrats to Republicans by a 51 percent to 45 percent edge, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. In an Oct. 22 survey, the Democrats had led 55-41.
And a poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center that specializes in public opinion found a 47-43 lead for Democrats among likely voters, down from 50-39 two weeks ago. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.
The Washington Post/ABC poll still had bleak news for Bush, with his approval rating at a dismal 40 percent and almost twice as many registered voters saying that they would cast their ballot as an anti-Bush gesture rather than a show of support.
Washington pundit Charlie Cook forecast "a very strong Democratic wave" on election day. Analysts gave the party a strong shot to win the House but said the Senate hinges on a few key races in states such as Virginia and Missouri.