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The insider's guide to the U.S. mid-terms

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(CNN) -- U.S. voters go to the polls Tuesday in mid-term elections with important consequences for the country's future. Here's all you need to know.

What's at stake on November 7?

Voters will decide which of the U.S.'s two political parties -- the Republicans and the Democrats -- control each of the houses of Congress' two chambers. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs along with 33 of the Senate's 100 seats (two per state.) Representatives serve a two-year term while senators are elected for six years. Thirty-six states will also elect state governors.

So George W. Bush is safe then?

The next American presidential elections are not until 2008 and the U.S.'s constitutional two-term limit means Bush will step down soon after that anyway. But the mid-terms could have important consequences for Dubya's final two-and-a-bit years in charge with the Democrats looking to seize control of the legislative arm of U.S. government. They need just a 15-seat gain to earn a majority in the House for the first time since 1994 and just six extra Senate seats. If they succeed in both chambers, Bush, who has enjoyed the backing of a Republican-controlled Congress since 2002, could face an uncomfortable end to his term.

How much of a factor is Bush in these elections?

Bush is a big factor amid widespread discontent with his presidency -- and the mid-terms are likely to be as much a vote on that as a series of local battles. The incumbent president has bounced back a little from his worst-ever approval ratings earlier in the year -- a CNN poll this week put him at 37 percent -- but he remains a problem rather than an asset to many Republicans standing for office or seeking re-election. Some have gone as far as to suggest they don't want Bush campaigning on their behalf.

Other than Bush, what are the main issues that will influence voters next week?

The main one, which is tied up very closely with the question of Bush's own leadership, is Iraq. More than 100 American troops have been killed in Iraq this month in one of the worst months of violence since the 2003 invasion. Bush's authority has also been undermined by dissent over his "stay the course" strategy, which opponents say has created a quagmire from which the U.S. is now incapable of extracting itself. Bush counters that the Democrats have failed to offer a workable exit strategy of their own.

Anything else?

Domestically, the Republicans are under pressure over rising fuel prices and interest rates and economic slowdown. Immigration is another hot issue in many races nationwide, although not one that cuts cleanly down party lines with candidates from both sides adopting tough stances.

And then you can also throw in the perennial issues that seem come up in every U.S. election season such as same sex marriages (voters in six states are to be balloted on that issue on election day) and abortion -- especially in South Dakota which passed a law virtually outlawing all terminations earlier this year.

Traditionally moral issues have been crucial for the Republicans, enabling them to bring out the Christian vote in force. But the wildcard that could do serious damage to their chances this time is voters' reaction to the recent sex and corruption scandals that have damaged the GOP's (the "Grand Old Party," as the Republicans are popularly known) reputation as a party of probity and moral rectitude.

Revelations about disgraced former Floridian Congressman Mark Foley, who quit amid allegations that he sent sexually explicit instant messages to teenage boys, and wider reports of a Republican cover-up only further damaged the image of a party already buffeted by sleaze over the cases of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who bought influence on Capitol Hill with gifts to politicians and the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who quit in June amid a series of investigations of his fundraising activities.

What are the pundits and pollsters predicting?

Even if the Bush factor is excluded, mid-term elections have historically not been kind to the party of the incumbent president. Most polls so far suggest the U.S. is heading for a shift in the political landscape in favor of the Democrats. A CNN poll on Monday showed Democrats defending a double-digit overall lead over the Republicans, though the GOP may retain a slim majority in the Senate. Pollster James Zogby said on Sunday he expected the Democrats to gain around 25 to 30 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate.


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Supporters hold a banner for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb in Roanoke, Virginia.

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