US campaign takes a negative turn for the worse

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TWO MONTHS ago, the US elections looked as if they would be a walkover. The Republicans looked set to capitalise on Bill Clinton's misbehaviour, and turn their narrow control of the two houses of Congress into domination. Suddenly, nothing looks certain, and the elections have turned into a horse race.

Ohio and Kentucky, which face each other over the Ohio river, will see some of the closest and most important election contests next Tuesday. And the races have taken a nasty turn, as the candidates launch vicious attacks on each other.

In the Ohio Valley, television programmes are punctuated by advertisements that characterise candidates in the worst possible terms. Vast amounts of cash are being spent on television advertising and even though only a few seats are vulnerable, it looks set to be the most expensive election so far.

In Ohio and Kentucky, not only the US Senate and House candidates are splashing out. Each commercial break has four or five political advertisements, with county commissioners, state attorneys and state supreme court justices all slogging it out.

A lot is at stake in these two states. There are two Senate and four House seats up for grabs. When President Clinton was on the rack, it seemed that the Republicans were set for an across-the-board gain, but, as he has emerged stronger, the Democrats might limit their losses.

The first to "go negative", apparently, was the Republican Bob Taft, who is chasing the Ohio governorship. Mr Taft launched adverts attacking his Democrat opponent, Lee Fisher, for his previous record in government. Mr Fisher responded in kind, and the two are now running adverts attacking each other for attacking each other.

"Lee. Lies. Loser," say Mr Taft's adverts, succinctly. He shot first, and attracted a lot of criticism for doing it - he was even ruled to have knowingly lied in one of the advertisements. But, according to the latest polls, he is only 4 percentage points ahead of Mr Fisher.

In Cincinnati there is a very close race for the House of Representatives seat. The incumbent Republican, Steve Chabot, has launched negative advertisements against Roxanne Qualls, the city's former mayor and Democrat challenger. "She supports looting the budget surplus," says Mr Chabot, accusing her of "looting" it for things like research on grasshoppers. It is a charge supported only by a vague claim that Ms Qualls paid to have art from the city shipped to Japan. She has a good chance of unseating Mr Chabot. The race for the US House seat in northern Kentucky has also turned ugly with advertisements from Ken Lucas, the Democrat who is seeking the formerly Republican seat, charging his opponent Gex Williams with lying. Mr Lucas may gain the seat.

"Going negative" is always an option in American politics, though rarely have so many gone so negative in the same area.

The Senate contest in New York between the Republican Al D'Amato and the Democrat Charles Schumer has been dredging the gutter for weeks, and other races are heading the same way.

The general rule about negative adverts, campaign professionals say, is that he who shoots first gets the best shot. Negative adverts work, even though voters don't like them. Failing to respond is fatal, so each inevitably starts a war. But if television advertising is a form of strategic bombing, there is also hand-to-hand fighting going on, with both sides engaged in mobilising every last voter.

For the Democrats, the key aim now is to bring out the vote on 3 November. Ms Qualls, with big-league support, is trying to keep the punters energised, which is what brought her and the House minority leader Richard Gephardt, the top Congressional Democrat, to a union hall just north of downtown on Monday. But the point of this meeting is to energise the audience to get others out to vote. "It's a very simple premise," says Ms Qualls. "If people vote, I win. If they don't..."

The Democrats know that their voters are less ready to turn out than Republicans, even in normal circumstances. The economy is doing well, and many voters are even less energised than usual. The Clinton affair has discouraged others from voting, and though it is rarely mentioned by voters, it has exacerbated the cynicism which many feel about politicians at the best of times.

That is the reason why the Republicans are now fielding advertisements that target the President; and it is also why the negative advertisements may pay their way, by disgusting voters still more with politics.

There is one more factor which may work in favour of the Republicans. Kyle Simmons, campaign co-ordinator for the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, says: "Hope it rains."