DEMOCRATS are poised to win today's crucial congressional midterm elections as voters send a message of discontent to George Bush, the United States president - and the "Blow-Out Belt" could be the key.
The Democrats hope to make significant gains in a swathe of states - christened the Blow-Out Belt by nervous Republicans - from Indiana to Connecticut. Democrats have targeted three seats in both those states and have high hopes of picking up others in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. A Democratic sweep in those states would give the party control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994.
Two separate opinion polls showed that the Democrats' advantage had fallen from a double digit lead just two weeks ago to between four and seven points. A Pew Institute poll reported that 47 per cent of likely voters favoured Democrats to 43 per cent who intended to vote for Republican candidates. "Republicans are back in the game," said Andy Kohut of Pew.
"There's no doubt about that," said Congressman John Boehner, the Republican majority leader. "There is a grand game going on that we know how to run. Thousands and thousands of phone calls are being made. Thousands of volunteers are door-knocking. People are being energised."
Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain control of the 435 member House of Representatives while they need to gain six Senate seats if they are to retake control of the upper chamber. The odds favoured the former more than the latter last night.
Yesterday the Democrats were using everything at their disposal to gain support, with the popular former president Bill Clinton appearing with his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, in New York, and then heading for campaign stops across the country.
Though Democrats are in with a good chance of winning Senate races in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Ohio, they will also need to pick up two of the too-close-to-call states of Missouri, Montana and Virginia.
The time for persuasion over each party concentrated its efforts on mobilising its supporters. Efforts to get the vote out will prove critical in races across the country.
Each party has allocated more than $30 million (16 million) to the task of shipping voters to the polls, in an election that has already seen record amounts spent.
Republicans have tried to fight the election on local issues whereas Democrats have wasted no opportunity to turn the poll into a referendum on the president, George Bush, and the war in Iraq. According to the polls the war will be a "very important" factor for more than half the electorate when they decide which party to support.
GOP candidates have distanced themselves from a president whose popularity remains below 40 per cent. "I'm not asking them to vote Republican, I'm asking them to vote for me," the Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele told Fox News. Although Mr Bush campaigned in Missouri on Friday, he has generally confined himself to appearances in solidly Republican states for fear that his presence in marginal constituencies might do more to energise Democrats than the Republican faithful. Yesterday Charlie Crist, the GOP's candidate in the race for the governorship of Florida, declined to appear with the president at a rally in Pensacola.
Howard Dean, the Democratic party chairman, acknowledged that voters would have to change their habits if his party was to enjoy success in the results.
Promising what he termed "a new direction" at home and abroad, Mr Dean counselled voters that "if you want to change what's going on in Washington, vote for Democrats."
Democrats seek to grab national control at local level
AS WELL as the Senate and Congress elections taking place today, Americans will vote for the governorships of 36 of the 50 states and thousands of state legislative and local races.
The state elections are particularly important, as legislatures can redraw constituency boundaries for the federal elections, meaning any significant Democrat gains could be converted into seats in Washington.
Alan Rosenthal, professor of policy and political science at Rutgers University, said he thinks the Democrats are "going to wind up with control of a number of more chambers. It's an election in which national issues and dissatisfaction with president Bush are going to ripple down to the local level".
"Redistricting" became a key issue following the June US Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case that essentially gave state legislatures the latitude to redo congressional district maps, said Michael Davies, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
He said the feeling among Democrats as a result is that "we better win at the local level ... to win at the national level".
Polls give Americans a voice on hot topics
EVEN without federal and state elections, today would be a politically charged one in the United States, as voters consider referendums on a range of hot topics: abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, sex crimes and even legalising marijuana.
A measure in the conservative, sparsely populated midwestern state of South Dakota is perhaps the country's most momentous: voters must decide whether to uphold or reject a new state law that would ban abortion.
South Dakota politicians passed the ban in hopes that a subsequent court challenge might lead to the US Supreme Court overturning its 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalising abortion.
Instead of going to court, abortion-rights activists gathered enough petition signatures to put the measure to a state-wide vote.
Weeks after federal lawmakers approved a 700-mile fence along the US-Mexico border, Arizonans will vote on four immigration measures.
In Missouri, a ballot will run on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ensure stem cell research is allowed.