Democrats hit back in last-lap revival

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REPUBLICANS HAVE started discreetly playing down their expectations of big gains in Tuesday's US congressional elections, as new opinion polls yesterday showed Democrats in key seats recovering much lost ground. The Democratic Party, intent on leaving nothing to chance, launched a late blitz of radio and television advertising, addressing last-minute Republican adverts that had brought the Monica Lewinsky affair into the national campaign for the first time.

From the White House came a volley of appearances and statements calculated to dominate today's newspapers and project an image of a President and a government competently and energetically conducting the business of the world's sole superpower. President Clinton spared time before speeding to New York for yet another fund-raising event to tell reporters about the strength of the US economy and his plans for education and health.

The National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, gave a speech at the National Press Club defending US foreign policy, and pledging to use US force to protect "American interests and values" wherever they might be endangered. Robert Rubin, the Treasury Secretary, presented the Group of Seven statement on global economic reform, stressing US-British leadership of the project.

Al Gore meanwhile called a press conference - not the Vice-President's usual forum of choice - to accuse the Democrats' favourite bogeyman, Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, of masterminding the anti-Clinton advertisements. Mr Gore said he was "shocked" to learn (from a leak to the pro-Clinton Washington Post) of Mr Gingrich's alleged role in the campaign.

"This entire partisan plot," said Mr Gore, "was personally masterminded by Speaker Newt Gingrich" - and, for good measure: "These attacks personally devised by Speaker Gingrich are wrong."

The Republican adverts only allude to the Lewinsky affair, but show middle- class mothers asking what they should tell the children about lying and a silent videoclip of Mr Clinton's denial of a sexual relationship with Ms Lewinsky. The reply adverts launched yesterday by the Democrats target the same female voters and build on the perceived public scandal-fatigue.

"I'm sick of hearing them debate everything except what really will make a difference for our kids' futures," says one. Another shows children's faces with the voiceover:

"What do these children need next year? Another year of endless partisan investigations or a Congress that works for them?"

The eleventh-hour advertising campaign, which is due to be aired in about 40 districts where congressional contests are especially close, was widely seen less as a point-scoring exercise than an attempt by both parties to get their voters to the polling station.

With about 40 races extremely close, turnout is seen as a decisive factor.

How close some of the votes could be was clear from the latest projections, which showed that some high-profile Democrats were edging ahead in races where they had previously appeared doomed.

This trend was seen across the country.