America - Andrew Stephen on the Bushies' vitriolic campaign

This year's mid-term elections are turning into one of the most ill-tempered and vitriolic ever. The

In case you are wondering, the present president of the United States is coping with the worst problems a US president has had to face since the Civil War. And we have this on the authority of none other than the first President Bush, known to his family as "Poppy". Said Poppy a few days ago of his son: "The fact is that he is wrestling with problems probably as tough as any president since Lincoln." Roosevelt, he went on, "faced the Second World War, but there we knew who the enemy was". But, concluded Poppy happily: "I think our president has the inner strength, the courage, the faith to carry him through this ordeal we are now facing as a nation."

What both Bushes have oodles of is the strength, courage and faith to electioneer furiously on behalf of the Republicans for the critical mid-term US elections on 5 November; even the matriarchal Barbara Bush, wife of Poppy, has been out campaigning. Bush II - or "43" as he is known in the White House these days, being the 43rd president - has left completely free the days in his diary between now and polling day, so that he can make last-minute campaigning trips where polls show his support might be valuable to the Republicans.

Last Tuesday, Bush 43 was flitting through Pennsylvania ("It's vitally important that citizens all across our country take their responsibility seriously as to show up at the polls") and Maine; that was no less than his 16th electoral visit to Pennsylvania, which was won by Al Gore in the 2000 elections.

In fact, Bush 43 has made 66 appearances at Republican fundraisers this year - an average of one every four days. His campaign started on 9 January, when he raised $1.5m for the campaign of Kid Brother Jeb, whose governorship of Florida is up for re-election.

In addition to two-thirds of the nation's governorships, the entire House and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs; and only tiny psephological shifts could put the entire Congress entirely back in Republican hands (currently they hold the House by a margin of just six votes) or with the Democrats (who currently control the Senate by one seat). Usually, the party of the sitting president loses out in mid-term elections: in 1982, two years into Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House. In 1994, when Bill Clinton had been in the White House for two years, the Republicans won control of both the House and Senate for the first time for 40 years, picking up 52 House seats and eight in the Senate in the process.

This year's election is turning into one of the most bad-tempered and vitriolic ever: just under the surface, Democrats are fuming that the Bushies are using the 11 September atrocities and the threatened war against Iraq as electoral tools. When 78-year-old Bush I (aka Bush 41) made those remarks about his son, for example, he was campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa - where one of the two Senate seats, currently held by a Democrat, Senator Tom Harkin, is endangered and where the Republicans smell blood. Having poured praise on the sterling qualities of his son in times of crises, Bush 41 got round to how Harkin had voted against the Gulf war in 1991: "Tom Harkin was unable to join me in that quest for the Senate to vote for that approval," he said, failing to mention that Iowa's other incumbent Senator - a Republican - also voted against the Gulf war resolution. The message: the Bushies are strong on patriotism and strength, the Democrats are wimpy and feeble.

But if Harkin is suffering those kinds of attacks on a national level, it is nothing compared with the abuse being hurled by the Republican candidate whom Bush 41 was supporting, a man named Greg Ganske. Recently there was a tragedy in Iowa, when the bodies of 14 suffocated illegal Mexican immigrants were found in a rail container. Ganske says that Harkin is to blame for the 14 deaths - because he supports social security payments being made to illegal immigrants, which attracted the 14 to Iowa in the first place.

In Georgia, meanwhile, the Republicans are running attack ads questioning the patriotism of the sitting Democrat, Senator Max Cleland, and showing his supposed feebleness by featuring pictures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in their television campaign ads: never mind that Cleland lost two legs and an arm fighting in Vietnam, for this is truly the election of the slick soundbite and the 30-second attack ad. So nasty and personal have the attack ads been in Colorado (now the nation's third-largest state) that a recent poll found that 58 per cent of voters have lowered their opinion of both Senatorial candidates.

In Montana, the sitting Democratic candidate has been running ads against his Republican opponent - an owner of a chain of hairdressing salons - depicting him as a camp wastrel.

With so much at stake, both sides are pulling out all the stops: Bush 43 has the distinct advantage of carrying with him all the trappings of the White House (such as the taxpayer-funded Air Force One) and having the presidential seal before him wherever he speaks. His zeal for campaigning at a time when the country is supposedly so deeply mired in crises was finally openly criticised last Tuesday by Representative Dick Gephardt, the Democrats' House leader: "It may be that he is worried they are going to lose this election and he's got to spend 100 per cent of his time trying to keep that from happening," said Gephardt. "But I think everybody would feel better if he would devote at least half of his attention to the problems that people are worried about every day."

The mantra of the Democrats is thus always to return to the worsening economy as a theme, and away from the supposedly patriotic wars against terror and/or Iraq. They have now adopted the tactic of running 30-second ads everywhere that Bush campaigns ("For eight years, Democrats led America to the strongest economy in history. And in two years, Republicans have brought us the weakest economy in a generation"); but for crowd-pulling speakers, the Democrats cannot rival Bush, and have to rely on Gephardt or Senate leader Tom Daschle, or even Bill Clinton (of whom most Democratic candidates have steered a wide berth).

Senator Hillary Clinton has actually been a more effective fundraiser than her husband, having attended 30 such events for Democratic candidates this year (is she perhaps building up a personal goodwill fund for her own bid for the presidential election of 2008?).

So far, it has been a bad campaign for the Democrats, who have been easily outspent by a Republican machine that has its act together, more so than the Democrats. Yet other poll data suggests matters could improve for the Democrats before 5 November. Polls show that the top issue for most voters is the economy and jobs, followed by education, Iraq, terrorism, social security, and Medicare. A new, widely used Democratic ad features an ageing couple, with the voiceover: "$175bn in savings gone, over two million jobs lost - many seniors starting over, looking for work."

That is an ad that will be playing repeatedly in Florida, where the most symbolically important race is on. Jeb Bush remains ahead in the polls, but not comfortably so; he is up against a hitherto unknown: a 6ft 4ins Tampa lawyer named Bill McBride. And therein lies a story: I say "hitherto", because Janet Reno was widely expected to win the Democratic primary against McBride. And Jeb and the Republicans were so keen to see the 64-year-old, ailing Reno as their opponent that during the primaries they actually ran a nasty anti-McBride attack ad.

The result? The obscure McBride, with just 6 per cent name recognition in Florida, suddenly became a major player known by 56 per cent of Floridians. So he is now on a roll - though Jeb has outspent him and will continue to do so with the support of his super-responsible, patriotic, elder brother George (Bush 43).

But will "Bush Loses" yet be the devastating headline the Democrats would kill for on 6 November? Watch this space to find out.