WASHINGTON: The battle to control the US Congress entered the final stretch Thursday as another poll showed the Democrats likely to benefit from voter anger over the Iraq war.
President George W Bush and other Republican leaders took advantage on Wednesday of an embarassing gaffe by Democratic Senator John Kerry to attempt to paint him and others in the party as unsupportive of US soldiers.
Nervous that Kerry's "botched joke" could cost them at the ballot box, other Democrats prodded him to apologise Wednesday and to refrain from helping them campaign.
But a new opinion poll released on Thursday showed most voters still faulting the Bush administration over the war in Iraq and backing the Democrats' effort to wrest back control of Congress.
The final New York Times/CBS News poll before next Tuesday's elections showed only 29 per cent of US voters approved of the way Bush is managing the war, matching the nadir of his ratings in a May-June poll.
While their national poll does not indicate the outcome of specific district and state races for the House and the Senate, the Times said that 52 per cent of registered voters interviewed said they would vote for Democrats, while only 33 per cent said they planned to support Republicans.
Among independent voters, considered a key to how the vote goes, 50 per cent said they would back Democrats, compared with 23 percent for Republicans.
While Bush is also not running, his overall approval rating at 34 per cent is believed to reinforce the view that Republicans could be hit with a significant setback on Tuesday.
The 34 per cent was nine points below where Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, was in October 1994, when Republicans seized control of the House in a monumental shift of power.
The Times/CBS poll yielded roughly the same results as a Wall Street Journal/NBC television survey released on Wednesday. In that poll, registered voters favored Democrats 52 per cent to 37 per cent over Republicans.
The poll found 54 per cent of voters saying it had not been worth the human and economic price to remove former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
Both polls, however, were taken before the Kerry gaffe, and so neither could gauge how the episode might affect voters.
Democrats are poised to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans, and possibly the Senate as well. They need to gain a net 15 seats out of 435 in play to control the House, and a net six seats out of 33 up for grabs to dominate the Senate.
A Democrat victory in both houses could hobble Bush for the last two years of his presidency, but it could also paralyse Congress, analysts said.
Bush was to appear in two western campaign rallies on Thursday while his rival in the 2004 presidential race Kerry -- chastised by his own party for his faux pas -- withdrew from campaigning to contain the damage to Democratic candidates. In a speech on Monday, Kerry joked that Americans who neglect their education would "get stuck in Iraq." While the Vietnam veteran said he was referring specifically to Bush, Republicans said he insulted US troops in Iraq.
Democrats hoped Kerry's apology would prevent the remarks from losing votes for party candidates.
"Now that Senator Kerry has apologised, we can move on to the real issue, which is this administration's mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the need to go in a new direction," said Democratic Representative Marty Meehan on CNN television.
While national polls suggested that the US involvement in Iraq was the main issue of the campaign, the Washington Post reported on Thursday that at least 15 Republican seats in the House were in jeopardy due to a slew of corruption scandals. These included the influence-peddling case of Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the alleged cover-up of Republican Representative Mark Foley's sexual advances on underage male Congressional aides.
"So many different kinds of scandals going on at the same time, that's pretty unique," said congressional historian Julian Zelizer, quoted by the Post. Zelizer called the number of recent scandals, most of them involving Republicans, "almost overwhelming".