President George Bush's bid for re-election is stalling as a result of the turmoil in Iraq, according to the results of an opinion poll that shows he has fallen behind in the race for the White House.
For the first time a test of the public mood has shown Mr Bush trailing his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, not just in the overall contest for the presidency but in what was considered his strongest suit: the fight against terrorism.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News survey offers a distinctly gloomy prospect for Mr Bush in his battle to secure a second term. After three months in which his foreign policy strategy has been under the spotlight like never before, public opinion may be finally turning against the Iraq war. His chances of re-election have never looked more uncertain.
The poll's findings confirm that even a record $100m-plus of campaign advertisements aimed at discrediting his opponent have been no counterbalance to the torrent of bad news for Mr Bush - the continuing violence in Iraq, damning reports on the pre-war intelligence failures and the 11 September attacks, and, above all, the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.
The President now trails Mr Kerry by 45 per cent to 53 per cent, one of the widest margins yet recorded.
Most worrying for Republicans are Mr Bush's plunging poll ratings in the "war on terror", which once seemed set to carry him to a comfortable election win in November.
Instead, for all the party machine's efforts to brand Mr Kerry as weak on national security, it is the Democrat who is judged likely to do the better job in fighting terrorism. The margin is a bare 48 per cent to 47 per cent, a dead heat in statistical terms. But it is in sharp contrast to the Washington Post/ABC News poll's finding just a month ago, when the President led by 52 per cent to 39 per cent. Americans' views of the Iraq occupation are also changing. Only 51 per cent believe the war has improved the long-term security of the US.
A record 71 per cent say the level of US casualties in Iraq is "unacceptable". And by a 52 to 47 majority, Americans feel the war was not worth fighting.
A similar majority disapproves of Mr Bush's job performance. Although more than four months remain until the election on 2 November, not since Harry Truman in 1948 has an incumbent president has been so low in the polls at this stage and still won a second term.
In a separate dent to the administration's credibility, the State Department was yesterday issuing revised figures for the victims of terror worldwide in 2003, showing a sharp increase in the number of those killed. A report two months ago claimed that 307 people died in 190 attacks, the fewest since 1969 - enabling Mr Bush to boast that the US was winning the "war on terror". But the new figures, to be announced by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, were expected to show that the total killed was close to the 725 who died in 2002. "The facts we had were wrong," Richard Boucher, Mr Powell's spokesman, said.
The poll contains other alarming data for the White House. Mr Bush has based his political image on straight talking. But, by a 52 per cent to 39 per cent margin, Mr Kerry leads in the "honest and trustworthy" category - a measure of how much Iraq and the reasons advanced for the war have eroded the President's credibility.
Even more astonishing, and equally worrying for Bush strategists, those surveyed gave the Democratic candidate a massive 20 point lead when asked which candidate "better understands the problems of people like you."
The finding turns campaign stereotypes on their head. Whatever his failings, Mr Bush was supposed to be the "regular guy" candidate. Whatever his virtues, Mr Kerry has mostly been depicted as a patrician and extremely wealthy north-easterner who has little in common with ordinary Americans.
Even if the third party contender Ralph Nader is included in the race for the White House, Mr Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, still leads President Bush by 48 per cent to 44 per cent, with 6 per cent for Mr Nader. Most analysts believe that the independent candidate will, in fact, do badly should he stand, probably picking up less than the 2.7 per cent he won four years ago.
Mr Nader took a significant step in that direction yesterday, by enlisting Peter Camejo, a Green Party activist, to be his vice-presidential running mate. This should bring a formal endorsement by the Greens of Mr Nader, who ran as the party's nominee in 2000.
If so, he will win de-facto ballot access in 22 states, including Florida where Nader votes cost Al Gore the state, and the presidency, four years ago. But this time the Democrats are so united in their desire to get rid of Mr Bush that few are likely to indulge in the luxury of a protest vote.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd