12/31/2011 04:30 EST | Updated 02/29/2012 05:12 EST

Down-and-dirty U.S. presidential campaign a certainty in election-year 2012

WASHINGTON - From the earliest days of Barack Obama's presidency, top congressional Republicans made it clear: their No. 1 goal in the ensuing four years was to prevent him from winning a second term in 2012.

With the dawning of an election year in just a few days, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor and other leading Republicans will soon find out if their strategy has been a successful one as Americans of all political stripes fume about the congressional bipartisan feuding that has gone hand and hand with Obama's time in the Oval Office.

A new poll suggests a record number of Americans, in fact, believe most members of Congress should be booted out of office in 11 months. And their ire is focused most squarely on incumbent Republicans, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center.

Forty per cent of those polled say Republican leaders are to blame, while just 23 per cent point the finger at Democrats.

A recent Gallup survey also found that 70 per cent of Americans are dreading the upcoming presidential campaign, wishing they could fast-forward to the end rather than watch the theatrics unfold.

There's little doubt it's going to be a down-and-dirty campaign with Obama poised to run against congressional Republicans he will paint as obstinate and obstructionist, while his political rivals will most certainly portray him as an abysmal failure on creating jobs and rejuvenating the still-sputtering U.S. economy.

"Mad as hell usually wins, because people go to the polls if they're mad as hell, and they'll stay home if they're complacent," said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of the school's Survey Center.

"So you'll see both parties in the months to come attempt to stick their fingers in the eye of the other party. Obama will try to stir up anger at congressional Republicans, while Republicans will try to stir up anger about the economy."

Boehner, the House majority leader, provided a hint of how he might respond to such attacks from Obama when questioned about the Pew survey last week.

"Welcome to divided government," he told a news conference.

"The American people provided a Republican House, a Democrat Senate and a Democrat in the White House. And as a result, we've got to work overtime to try and find common ground to do what the American people sent us here to do.

"It's not easy, it's not pretty, but it's the process our founders gave us and my job is to help make it work."

The current 112th Congress, however, has been one of the least productive in years if measured by votes taken, bills made into laws and nominees approved. The two ever-duelling parties also narrowly averted a federal default, thereby warding off outright government shutdowns.

The year ended in typical fashion: with bitter wrangling over legislation to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits to hard-hit Americans.

Republican efforts to tie a provision that would force Obama to make a decision within 60 days on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline only added to the rancour. Democrats say the Republicans' pipeline schemes would all but ensure the death of the $7-billion project.

Is the Republican presidential race providing any hope of more peaceful times ahead? Hardly.

With primary season about to kick off with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, polls of primary voters suggest Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are neck and neck in the race for the nomination. Libertarian Ron Paul, meantime, was ahead of both men in one Iowa survey this week thanks to a loyal core of supporters in the so-called Hawkeye State.

Expect the Republican elite to turn on Paul as though he's a dreaded socialist — possibly born in Kenya — if the longtime Texas congressman manages to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, one observer has noted.

"If those two unexpected events do occur, then all hell will rain down upon the Paulistas," wrote Jeremy Lott, an editor at the RealClearPolitics website.

"The GOP establishment will throw everything including the kitchen sink, the garage door opener, and two dozen pair of oversized baboon dentures at Paul to keep him from becoming the nominee."

And neither Romney nor Gingrich, should either win the nomination, are expected to elevate the tenor of political debate in a campaign against Obama.

Romney's hardly been shy about launching some devastating attacks in recent weeks not just against the president, but at Gingrich, as those close to the former Massachusetts governor emerged recently to assail the one-time speaker of the House of Representatives as "anti-conservative" and "unreliable."

Gingrich, meantime, was known as a "bomb-thrower" when he was speaker in the 1990s. Indeed, he's considered one of the engineers of the type of bare-knuckled brawling in play on Capitol Hill since Obama's inauguration.

He frequently vowed to defeat Democrats at any cost, and even shut down the government in the mid-1990s thanks partly to his annoyance at former president Bill Clinton's insistence that he sit in the back of Air Force One during a presidential tour.

Now Gingrich is on the receiving end of such politics with his rivals for the nomination taking aim at everything from his marital history to the money he made "consulting" on Capitol Hill and his moderate positions on issues including climate change and immigration.

The vitriol is simply a sign of things to come in the months ahead, said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

"It will be a very negative campaign, regardless of who wins the nomination,'' said Covington, who nonetheless predicts Romney will ultimately take the prize.

"Obama's game plan is the same as Harry Truman's in 1948 — to malign a do-nothing Congress. He will tout all the things he tried to get done that Republicans prevented him from doing."

But Covington urges battle-weary Americans to tune in, despite the negativity.

"There's lot of substance for the parties to compete on, ranging from the economy to what the proper role of government is in our society and the war on terror and how it's been handled. This is going to be a very substantively consequential election."