Monica makes a comeback

Yawns fade as the mid-term elections head for a much closer finish than expected, says Mary Dejevsky in Washington
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The Independent Online
MID-TERM Congressional elections in the United States - the elections that fall between the four-yearly presidential contests - are habitually dismissed by voters with a yawn and a shrug. Spoilt by what critical foreigners might call a surfeit of democracy, a majority of voters stay at home. Turnout for the mid-terms is on a par with local council elections in Britain.

At the beginning of the year, there were confident predictions that this week's elections would be among the most boring on record. The economy was booming, the President's approval rating was as high as Ronald Reagan's at its zenith, and, amazingly for a country that detests federal anything, public approval of Congress was running well above 50 per cent. Americans felt good about themselves. It was a year, everyone agreed, for the status quo. Incumbents could rest easy; challengers had little hope.

Even with the whole House of Representatives up for re-election (all 435 members), one-third of the Senate (34 seats) and 36 state governors, relatively few contests seemed close. Even a good showing by Democrats looked unlikely to upset the Republican majority in either chamber. A record number of incumbents were running for reelection and open contests were few.

What a difference nine months make. This weekend, the last few days of campaigning before Tuesday's elections, Americans are witness to coast- to-coast slanging matches of a vehemence reminiscent of the fiercest presidential contests. From Washington state in the north-west to Florida in the south- east, candidates for national and state office are slugging it out on the stump and on the airwaves for all they are worth.

Late last week, the White House joined in, with Al Gore, the Vice-President, accusing the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, of personally masterminding a series of television advertisements that alluded for the first time to the campaign's Great Unmentionable: the Monica Lewinsky affair. Pressing the "Gingrich" button is a reliable way of rousing Democrats, as well Republicans know. The chairman of the Republican Party, Jim Nicholson, at once accused Al Gore of launching a "scurrilous and hate-filled" attack on Mr Gingrich.

A party spokeswoman denied that Mr Gingrich was personally involved with the adverts, adding: "Newt Gingrich was no more a part of those ads than Al Gore was a part of Bill Clinton's inappropriate behaviour."

After three weeks of slow campaigning in the constituencies, where most debates were every bit as boring as had been forecast, the 1998 mid-term elections are suddenly alive. The Clinton question - the sex, the lies, and impeachment - is back on the agenda, just in time for Tuesday's vote.

This is not to say that voters will turn out in any greater numbers than in other mid-term elections, or that their votes will be determined primarily by their view of Bill Clinton. Opinion polls are unanimous that voters do not see the elections as a referendum on Bill Clinton, and will select their candidate on local issues and individual character.

What has changed is the electoral climate. As the Monica Lewinsky affair, now known simply as "the scandal", rumbled and raged by turns, it was the future of the President himself that was in question. Those who had tied their colours too tightly to his mast, whether in Congress or as state governors, were written off as unelectable.

Now, the climate looks more benign for the President. His job approval ratings are as high as ever. He more than balanced the domestic budget, his persistence restored life to the moribund Middle East peace process, the US will not bomb Serbia (yet), and John Glenn is orbiting the earth (again). The threat of impeachment, while still real, seems likely sooner or later to be averted.

After their initial embarrassment, some of the most imperilled Democratic candidates have fought back. Barbara Boxer may keep her Senate seat in California after all; indeed, the whole of California may swing to the left after its decade of flirtation with the right. The Democratic candidate for Senate in New York may snatch the seat from Alfonse d'Amato, one of the canniest politicians in the business. Even Senator Carol Moseley-Braun is not looking so certain a loser in Illinois.

If predictions for these races are replicated elsewhere, the Democrats will have saved what looked like a desperate situation. The Republicans, who had trumpeted the prospect of bringing their tally of Senate seats to the crucial 67 needed to ratify treaties (and impeach a President) by themselves, are now privately scaling their ambitions back further even than the 60 seats needed to conclude debates and set the agenda. A net gain of only three on their current total of 55 looks more realistic.

And iIf the polls are correct, Newt Gingrich could even find his position as House Speaker in danger. The decisions to ignore the Clinton issue at the outset and to raise it last week have both been laid at his door, and he could be vulnerable on both counts in his own party.

Mr Clinton, who has mostly detached himself from the electoral fray, said at the start of the weekend, clearly alluding to his own position, that this was "no ordinary election and no ordinary time".