Scandal scores a success on the campaign trail

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IF THE Monica Lewinsky scandal has roared back to life in the closing days of the US election campaign, inspiring venomous television ads and outbursts of indignation from both major parties, then it is largely the doing of Jay Inslee.

Mr Inslee is not a national figure - indeed, he is not even a member of Congress, or not yet - but he was the brave soul who first dared to mention the scandal on the campaign trail, in defiance of prevailing wisdom among both Republicans and Democrats that the issue was too hot to handle.

From his viewpoint, as the Democrat underdog in a tough race in the northern suburbs of Seattle, Mr Inslee reckoned he had nothing to lose. So on 8 October, the day that Congress voted to hold open-ended impeachment hearings on President Bill Clinton, he made a television advertisement castigating his Republican rival, Rick White, for voting in favour of the hearings and urging the country to return to its senses.

"Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn't be dragging us through this," he said in the ad. "Enough is enough. It's time to get on with the nation's business."

Psephologists and spin doctors across the nation watched in eager anticipation to see what effect Mr Inslee's tactic would have. Despite the misgivings, the polls showed him pulling even with Mr White after weeks lagging a few points behind. The race is now too close to call.

"He never saw it as a risk," said Mr Inslee's campaign spokeswoman, Sarah O'Connell. "Everywhere he went he asked people about it and this is what they told him they felt. Congress in this past term has done just about nothing except focus on the scandal."

Where Mr Inslee dared to tread, other Democrats soon followed. Last week the Republicans retaliated with three national ads making their own allusions to the scandal and suggesting that a vote for the Democrats would be an endorsement of the President's lies to the grand jury and the American people. With election day looming on Tuesday, Monica Lewinsky is everywhere all over again.

Mr Inslee never meant to use the sex scandal to distract voters from what he considers the key issues - safeguarding social security, defending patients against the health insurance companies, protecting the environment and improving education. But his ad has proved an efficient attention- grabber in a district where Seattle's instinctive liberalism is mixed with the creeping conservatism of yuppyish suburbs spawned by Microsoft and the software revolution.

And impeachment is just one issue on which he and Mr White disagree. As they race down to the wire, the two candidates have been hurling everything they can muster at each other.

Mr Inslee has linked his adversary to the Christian right, and accused him of being so cosy with Washington lobbyists that he has plans to become one himself. Mr White has tried to hold himself above the fray, joking that if Mr Inslee wanted to run against Newt Gingrich he should have moved to Georgia, not Seattle.