Monica fails to excite voters - or so they say

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The Independent Online
IF MONICA LEWINSKY and the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton were to have any impact on next month's US elections, then surely they would be felt under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado.

The state's Second Congressional District has been a solid seat for the Democrats since 1974 - the year that the Republican Richard Nixon pre- empted his own impeachment by resigning. All of a sudden, it has become one of the most hotly contested races in the country, with neither the Democrat, Mark Udall, nor the Republican, Bob Greenlee, daring to predict victory.

Is this the "Monica effect" - the fall-out from a Democratic president who, to believe the pundits on Capitol Hill, has lost both credibility and the trust of the electorate?

Actually, no. There are plenty of reasons why Messrs Udall and Greenlee are fighting down to the last vote, but the Lewinsky scandal categorically is not one of them. It is not mentioned in the campaign literature, it has not featured in television adverts, and just about the only time it comes up on the stump is when a journalist asks about it.

"People are tired of what's going on in Washington," explained Mr Udall. "If anything, the scandal has pushed us to run a more locally based campaign because everyone in DC is too distracted to talk about the issues." Sean Murphy, Mr Greenlee's campaign manager, agreed: "People seem to have a voyeuristic interest in following the scandal in the media, but they've made it clear they don't want their political leaders to talk about it."

An election widely interpreted as a plebiscite on Mr Clinton's political future is thus turning out to be a good old-fashioned contest over the issues closest to voters' hearts: underfunding and overcrowding in the public school system, tackling the abuses in health care provision, the merits of taxation versus social security spending, and that evergreen American political issue - whether or not to limit abortion rights. This being Colorado, environmental protection is also a big concern, particularly since the economy and the population are both growing at a cracking rate and property developers are quickly transforming vast tracts of farmland into suburban housing.

On a national level, the parties have too much to lose from trying to make political capital out of the Lewinsky affair. Republicans don't want to attack Mr Clinton for fear of being accused of partisan, not to say prurient, self-interest. Democrats don't want to fight back with accusations against Kenneth Starr because it would associate them too closely with the President and his glaringly public shortcomings.

On a local level, the political calculations don't even go that far. Apart from a handful of races in states under a heavy media spotlight (Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer's faltering re-election campaign in California, for example), the shenanigans in Washington are being dismissed as an irrelevance - even though hundreds of candidates aspire to end up there in January, and will almost certainly have to deal with the impeachment question as soon as they do.

Messrs Udall and Greenlee are a case in point, particularly since both are newcomers (the incumbent, David Skaggs, is retiring after 12 years). Their freshness is reflected in their willingness to wear their opinions on their sleeve - rather than following the dictates of their special- interest sponsors, marketing strategists and focus-group surveys.

If their race is so close, it is partly because of the changing demographics of Colorado. The liberal university town of Boulder is now closely ringed by conservative suburban communities like Broomfield and Lafayette. That leaves the south-eastern fringes of the constituency - the outskirts of Denver - to decide the contest.

Much will depend here, as elsewhere, on turn-out. The Second District traditionally polls relatively high - 55 to 60 per cent against 45 per cent or so nationwide - but there is a high proportion of non-party affiliated voters and a correspondingly large number of don't knows.

That kind of volatility, mirrored across the country, explains why it is anyone's guess whether the Republicans will increase, maintain, or lose their current 11-seat majority in the House of Representatives. A strong Democratic showing will no doubt bolster Bill Clinton as he fights off impeachment. But whether his troubles will have any effect on the actual voting is another matter.