Clinton survives the Monica effect

US Elections: The President's popularity and a high turnout have led to a startling turnaround from poll predictions
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THE DEMOCRATS were moving towards a powerful showing in the American elections last night, putting even seats that had seemed confirmed Republican possessions in doubt.

The popularity of President Bill Clinton apparently outweighed national anger over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The vote looked set to stir a revolt within the Republican party, whose financial and political advantages seemed to be evaporating.

Voting was under way across the country for all seats in the House of Representatives, 34 Senate seats and 36 Governorships as well as tens of thousands of local officials. The result seemed likely to be little change in the current political balance, a startling turnaround when heavy Democrat losses had been forecast just two months ago.

The Democrats took a Senate seat in Indiana as widely forecast, but were also putting up a strong fight in Georgia and South Carolina in early results. Jeb Bush, the son of the former president George Bush, won the governorship of Florida, and his brother, George W Bush, was also set to retain the Texas Governor's mansion.

The public had always cared less about the White House scandals than had America's political and chattering classes. The economy is rolling along nicely. The Democrats had worried that not enough of their voters would come out on the day, but in key areas - including California, South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia - turnout was heavy for a mid-term election.

The Republicans had entered the day predicting a victory. "There's no intrigue - we're going to win an election today," said Newt Gingrich, House Speaker and leader of the Congressional Republicans. He said he expected Republican gains of between 6 and 30 seats in the House, and 2 and 6 seats in the Senate. "If our team shows up, the team that is for cutting taxes, a stronger defence and winning the war on drugs, we should win the topside of every one of those numbers."

The Republicans had a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and a 228-206 majority in the House (there is one independent). Six more seats in the Senate would have enabled them to stop filibusters, long speeches by Senators intended to tie up debate. In the House, they had had expectations of double-digit gains, but that, too, was a fading hope.

A poor Republican performance would make it much harder for the party to press ahead convincingly with impeachment proceedings, according to one theory, as it would demonstrate a lack of support. According to another view, however, they will be even more vengeful. "House Republican leaders will be under fierce pressure from their right not to sell out again," wrote Norman Ornstein, a respected commentator.

The right wing of the Republicans is already angry that Mr Gingrich failed to press their agenda in the last Congress. In particular, they are furious that the budget which the Republican leadership accepted did not include all their aspirations, and compromised on others.

There may be a leadership challenge to Richard Armey, Mr Gingrich's lieutenant, to impose a more ideologically pure regime.

Mr Clinton has campaigned hard, but has concentrated his appearances at press conferences and public events where he has pressed broader messages, and fundraising events.

In particular, the Democrats have appealed to the black community to vote. Mr Clinton's support has held up best with black voters, who feel that he has been victimised. Turnout among black voters was one figure that was sure to be scrutinised especially carefully, as turnout was the key to the result.

The election will also give some idea of what might happen in the 2000 Presidential elections. A Democrat victory in the California gubernatorial would be a good omen for their chances, as California is the largest state. Gray Davis, the Democrat contender, was ahead in the polls. George W Bush, son of the former President, was expected to sweep the polls as Republican Governor in Texas, but if a Democrat was elected as Lieutenant Governor, that would make it much harder for Mr Bush to step out of the job to run for higher office.