Democrat icon tries to recover her halo

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AT THIS dingy Veterans of Foreign Wars club on the edge of Chicago, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun is warming to her audience, a roomful of motorcycle enthusiasts with more black leather per square inch than a briefcase factory. She likes their bumper stickers especially, "Another Biker for Braun".

And she is warming to her subject - bashing Peter Fitzgerald, the young and very wealthy Republican opponent who may very well deny her re-election when America votes on 3 November. The man has no understanding of how it is to make it in the real world, she insists. "I'm running against someone whose biggest struggle was out of the birth canal".

The line works a treat and the room explodes. But someone near the back utters a loud "oops", and a flicker of panic crosses the Senator's famously captivating smile. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. That was over the top". Spotting this reporter, she implores: "Don't write that down, please don't."

She shouldn't have said that, and the Senator, 51, knows it. But she has a record of doing things she comes to regret. Like visiting Sani Abacha, the former dictator of Nigeria, now deceased, in 1996 and omitting to tell even her own staff where she was going. And like lashing out a few weeks ago at political columnist George Will for criticising her, suggesting he belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

Not to mention the murk of her financial affairs. Allegations that she and her 1992 campaign manager and former fiance, Kgosie Matthews, spent thousands of campaign dollars on personal goodies like jewellery, travel and stereo equipment briefly drew the attention of federal investigators.

To her supporters, these and other mis-steps have been maddening. Few newcomers to the Senate six years ago seemed to have more promise. Avowedly liberal, Moseley-Braun was part of the "Year of the Woman" phenomenon that marked 1992. As the country's first female African-American senator, she was an instant national icon.

Now it seems highly likely she will prove a one-term wonder. Latest polls show her trailing Mr Fitzgerald by about 10 points.Fitzgerald, 38, is a state senator whose right-wing record, for instance on abortion rights and gun control, scared off even the leaders of his own party. He is fighting the election with a $10m blitz of television commercials, mostly funded from his family's banking fortune. The commercials are not about him but about Moseley-Braun. The whole race, in fact, is a referendum on her.

Losing Moseley-Braun will be personally disappointing to President Bill Clinton and also politically disastrous. With each additional Republican in the Senate, the risk of possible impeachment by the Senate grows for the President. No wonder the Clintons are hauling water for Moseley-Braun. The President recently took time out even from the Middle East peace talks to attend a fund-raising lunch with the Senator here.

Moseley-Braun, meanwhile, has an advertisement of her own in which she apologises for "mistakes" in her first term.

She hopes to use the last days of the campaign to highlight the conservative views of her foe and stir enthusiasm for the election. Turnout next week is expected to be 22 per cent. "That would be a travesty," she tells her motorcycling friends.

Catching up with Fitzgeraldnow is a tall order. Her support among blacks in Chicago has been hurt by her visit to the late Abacha, who had a brutal human rights record. Also, she seems to have lost the backing of women. And it was women who fell in love with her in 1992 and sent her to Washington.

The paradox is that while American women seem willing to forgive the President his sexual transgressions, they have not been able to forgive the Senator her "mistakes". It is almost as if they hold her to a higher standard, because she is a woman.

Moseley-Braun, said David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist here, was doomed to disappoint because she took "a kind of heroine status among upscale female voters". She was "the victim of unrealistic expectations".

Even here in the VFW club, few are certain they will support her. This is not a good sign, considering she became the only US Senator to take the floor to argue against mandatory wearing of helmets for motorcyclists, an issue close to bikers' hearts.

"I may vote for her, but I'm still not sure," says Linda Oliver, who is taking minutes at the meeting. "I think she still needs some work and she admits that herself."