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'Albatross' Clinton shunned: The President's unpopularity spells disaster for the Democrats in November's mid-term elections

THE Republicans would love them to be held tomorrow. Despondent Democrats wish that by some miracle Tuesday 8 November and all that goes with it, might be expunged from the calendar of 1994. But in two months' time, America's mid-term elections will take place, and rarely have the stakes been so high.

With today's Labor Day holiday, the campaigning proper begins for all 435 seats of the House of Representatives, for 35 Senate seats and for 36 of the country's 50 state Governorships.

For the first time in a decade, there is a real chance that control of one of the two chambers of Congress may change hands. The outcome could doom a wobbly presidency. Virginia is offering politics as farce; elsewhere it is politics as family, as great dynasties - the Kennedys of Massachusetts, the Browns of California, the Bushes of Texas and now Florida - re-enter the lists.

Invariably, mid-term elections punish the party in the White House. But not for two decades, since Republican candidates took the field in the autumn after Watergate, has a party in power been as jittery as today's Democrats, saddled with a deeply unpopular president, a meagre record of legislative achievement and an anti-incumbent mood among voters as strong as that which made Ross Perot the sensation of 1992.

The prospect is at best nervewracking, at worst catastrophic. Bill Clinton's spell in office has seen Democratic defeats in all major elections (for US Senator, state Governor or city mayor) which have been held. Such an albatross is the President that the Democratic National Committee advises candidates to avoid mention of his name while campaigning.

Despite such precautions however, the Democrats could yet be facing a disaster which could destroy Mr Clinton's remaining ability to control Capitol Hill. Quite possibly, the Republicans will capture the Senate for the first time since 1986, and a few optimistic souls even entertain hopes of their first majority in the House of Representatives since 1954. And just conceivably, the Republicans could ice the cake by capturing the Governors' mansions in the five largest states.

The best bet is the Senate. The Democrats have a 56-44 majority. But the party must defend 22 of the 35 seats up this time. By any yardstick, nine or ten are vulnerable, compared with only three on the Republican side.

The unexpected retirement of Majority Leader George Mitchell has turned his Maine seat into a toss-up. The same is true in Oklahoma, where Senator David Boren turned his back on 83 per cent of the vote last time around to become President of the state's university. In Pennsylvania, the virtual collapse of health care reform has dented Harris Wofford, whose stunning upset win in 1991 was built on that very issue.

But sitting and would-be Democratic senators are in trouble across the country; from California and Arizona, to Michigan and New Jersey by way of Massachusetts, where Edward Kennedy faces his sternest competition in 32 years. But arguably the most unpredictable, and certainly the zaniest, contest is in Virginia.

Top billing goes to sitting Democrat Charles Robb, entangled in tales of wiretapping, cocaine parties and nude massage sessions, and his Republican challenger, Oliver North, seeking to enter an institution which he so brazenly lied to during Iran-Contra. But the supporting cast is star-studded, too. The independent candidacy of former state attorney general Marshall Coleman has the blessing of Virginia's sitting Republican Senator John Warner. Former Governor Doug Wilder, driven by a decade-old feud with Robb, is vying for the Democratic vote.

In the 435-seat House, the Republicans must capture 40 seats to overturn the 256-178 Democratic majority in the outgoing 103rd Congress (one member is an independent). The task ought to be impossible. But some Democratic strategists are bracing for losses of 25 or 30 seats, many in the southern and border states where Mr Clinton is especially disliked. And with the small bloc of ultra-conservative Democrats who habitually defy the party whip, in practice 30 seats might be sufficient.

But the excitement will not be confined to Capitol Hill. Technically, the Governors' races are local affairs, but some will have huge implications for national politics. If sitting Republican Governor Pete Wilson wins in California, he may be tempted into a White House run, and Mr Clinton's hopes of carrying this must-win state in 1996 will be reduced.

The same applies if Democratic nightmares come true, and the Republicans win the governorships of the five largest states: California, New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. The odds against such a Republican sweep are enormous. But it could happen. And if it does, the blow to Mr Clinton would be as shattering as the loss of the House or Senate.

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