Democrats sense victory in race to control House

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The Independent US

This is an unusual election year, with an exceptionally close race for the presidency and the possibility that control of one or other house of Congress, perhaps both, could pass to the Democrats.

This is an unusual election year, with an exceptionally close race for the presidency and the possibility that control of one or other house of Congress, perhaps both, could pass to the Democrats.

The House has generally been regarded as a better bet for the Democrats than the Senate, partly because more seats are in play.

Few are truly competitive. Although all 432 House seats are on the ballot, in only around 40 of these is the result in doubt. Constituency borders have been demarcated in such a way that most seats are safe for one party or the other and in these districts the real fights are at the party primary.

The 40 or so that are competitive, however, are the ones that determine whether the House Democrats avenge their humiliating defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich six years ago. At a present disadvantage of 210-222, the Democrats need seven seats to seize the majority. Some prominent reputations - and ambitions - are riding on the result. Dick Gephardt, leader of the Democratic minority in the House, decided against running against Al Gore for the presidency and took his name out of the running for the vice-presidential slot in the hope of becoming the next House Speaker.

Not only does the Speaker hold considerable legislative influence but his is also the number-three position in the constitutional hierarchy in the event that both the president and vice-president are out of action. The post could also provide Mr Gephardt with a springboard for a presidential run should he see his way clear in four years.

He began organising and fund-raising for the Democrats' bid to regain the House early and in a highly organised fashion.

But circumstances were also propitious. The landslide of 1994, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, brought many new Republicans into Congress, not all of whom have stayed the course.

In the House, where members serve two-year terms, only the toughest of the "Gingrich" representatives survive but a number of these have come up against their own states' "term limits" and have no choice but to step down. Others imposed term limits on themselves when the public mood turned especially hostile towards lifetime politicians. At least one of these, George Northcutt, a Republican from Washington state, has broken his self-imposed pledge to run again and finds himself in a tight race where his integrity is one of the issues.

With control of the House at stake, both national party organisations are pouring money into the constituencies they have targeted as the most promising or the most vulnerable. California's 27th District, where the Republican incumbent, Jim Rogan, faces a state senator, Adam Schiff, has become the most expensive House race yet.

Mr Rogan has two disadvantages, one personal and one demographic. He was one of the most outspoken House "managers" who led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which unexpectedly lost Republicans support in the 1998 elections, and the arrival of new workers - Hispanic, Asians and others - has pushed his hitherto safe conservative district in suburban Los Angeles into the marginal category.

Demographics and impeachment are also playing a role in two races at the other end of the country. In southern Florida, Elaine Bloom hopes to win the 22nd district for the Democrats, capitalising on pensioners' fears about healthcare costs and the more Democratic leanings of those who have retired from the north-east.

In central Florida a conservative Republican, Ric Keller, hopes to capture the 8th District from the council chairwoman, Linda Chapin. The seat became vacant when Bill McCollum, another impeachment manager, decided to run for the Senate. Mr Keller hopes Mr McCollum's conservatism will work in his favour in a traditionally conservative district, but Ms Chapin's energetic campaign and demographic changes similar to those hampering Mr Rogan have made the race one of the closest in the country.

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