Republican hopes for control of the Oval Office are drooping. In desperation, the conservative candidate, Mitt Romney, released his 2011 tax returns, revealing he had handed over less than 15% of his income. The tax story is a parable for what ails Mr Romney. No one is sure what he stands for. He has sought to cover up his own liberal policy track record by talking up conservative values. He grumbles about tax avoiders but hides his own returns. His disinterest in foreign policy made him sound unpresidential during the recent Libya riots.
US President Barack Obama should be the walking wounded in this campaign. The US economy is anaemic, marred by stubbornly high unemployment figures. In the area US voters overwhelmingly declare their most important concern - the economy - Mr Romney commands a healthy lead over Mr Obama. Yet the polls show the Republicans falling behind since the start of Septe-mber. The gap is most striking in the electoral college - the peculiar state-by-state count that decides the US presidency. Mr Obama seems set to secure 247 of the 270 needed. Mr Romney lags with 191 votes. When it comes to the popular vote, Mr Obama has a smaller and still vulnerable lead that averages about 4 percentage points. However, Mr Romney's real weakness lies in his party's shrinking base. The Republicans have increasingly become the party of white working-class men, almost the only demographic which is plumping for Mr Romney. Mr Obama has commanding leads with women, with minorities and urban professionals. Yet it is these groups that are the rising forces in the US political horizon. Even suburbs, once a white bastion, are today about a third minority-populated.
It is not necessarily true that a Latino or a black could never vote Republican. In terms of social values and religious beliefs, many minorities are right-wing. The insularity of the Republican party has led it to adopt stances on immigration or civil rights that drive these potential allies away. Mr Romney is unable to provide a vision that would persuade these groups to vote for his party. The Republicans seem to be hoping that an economic relapse will trip up Mr Obama. But this reflects their own losing struggle to come up with winning ideas on their own.