Voters may be losers in the most expensive congressional race yet

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The Independent US

Money and sex are the great driving forces of any political intrigue, and both are alive and well in the high-stakes race for California's 27th congressional district,north-east of downtown Los Angeles.

Money and sex are the great driving forces of any political intrigue, and both are alive and well in the high-stakes race for California's 27th congressional district,north-east of downtown Los Angeles.

With the money meter above $9m (£6.4m) and climbing, it has become the most expensive congressional race in American political history. The competition arises partly from the neck-and-neck polling between Jim Rogan, the Republican incumbent, and Adam Schiff, his Democratic challenger.

Partly it is because the area encompassing Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank - once conservative, now less so - is considered a bellwether constituency that will determine whether the Democrats wrest the House of Representatives from Republican control.

But what has really set the race alight is Monica Lewinsky, or at least the shadow her dalliance with President Bill Clinton has cast over political life. What should have been a robust exchange between two politicians with sharply differing philosophies has been built up into a nasty grudge match, a kind of replay of the battles that led to the impeachment and acquittal of the president.

Mr Rogan was one of the House managers who prosecuted Mr Clinton with unseemly relish, which may have delighted Republican colleagues but appalled his constituents. In any less extraordinary circumstance, he would probably be crashing to defeat, the impeachment issue being one of several on which he is several notches to the right of his diverse and tolerant district. But the Lewinsky affair is a matter of honour for House Republicans and they have worked furiously on Mr Rogan's behalf to raise more than $6m for his re-election from around the country.

In response, Democrats, still enraged by the way their opponents ganged up on the President, have come up with a little under $4m in support of Mr Schiff, a man with a centrist electoral message to deliver who would much rather not talk about Ms Lewinsky at all.

The money has transformed the race and provides an unpalatable insight into distortions that unfettered campaign financing can create in elections. Mr Rogan's campaign, in particular, has played extremely dirty in sending out sensationalist fliers through the mail. One accuses Mr Schiff, a Californian state senator, of voting to increase taxes when he did not. Another says he voted to allow prisoners to drive school buses, when he voted against the proposal.

The assertions, which Mr Schiff describes as "diametrically opposed to the truth", creep in under people's mats thanks to the loophole in electoral law known as soft money.

Soft money is what supporters use to send out fliers, that, say, beat up on one candidate without specifically endorsing his opponent. There is no legal limit on indirect campaigning of this sort. Last week, a far-right religious group accused Mr Schiff of being "a champion of the homosexual agenda". Although denounced for its overtones of prejudice, the flier could not be directly attributed to Mr Rogan and he felt no need to apologise.

Mr Schiff has soft-money backing of his own, and although publicity on his behalf has been less voluminous and less strident he admits being uncomfortable with the proxy slogans concocted for him by unfamiliar organisations far away from his district. In fact, Mr Schiff would advocate rationalising the system so candidates spent more time on the stump and less passing round their hats to raise funds.

"Making campaign contribution calls is a very unpleasant thing to do. I wish it wasn't part of the process. Yes, soft money has been spent on me, and frankly I wish it weren't," Mr Schiff said after meeting retirees in Pasadena this week.

The fact is that he and the Democrats have no choice. Far from being sunk by his association with the Lewinsky affair or by remarks such as his assertion that abortion has killed more African-Americans than the Ku-Klux-Klan, Mr Rogan has used his fliers and his television advertisement to stay very much in the race - within the statistical margin of error for victory, according to recent polls.

Commentators agree that because of changing demographics, the 27th district will go Democratic soon. If it does not do so this year, it will be almost entirely because of the power of money. This is an issue with national reverberations. Overall campaign spending is on such a steep climb that one can detect signs of an incipient political-industrial complex in which an army of consultants, aides, lobbyists and publicists gets ever bigger in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Spending in federal races is expected to reach $3bn, a 50 per cent increase on 1996 and more than double the figure for 1992. Soft money, meanwhile, is expected to increase tenfold over the 1992 figure, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Corporations are no longer backing one horse over another. Partly because so many races are close, they are throwing funds equally at the two main parties. Candidates desperately need the money to compete in television advertising wars with their opponents. But the money also comes with a heavy price, since corporations expect something concrete in return.

The danger is that elected officials become bagmen for big business, a growing criticism of US politics. Mr Schiff believes he has the moral backbone to resist this tendency. But the backbone tends to soften once candidates are elected. In all but the highest-profile races, incumbents receive $10 on average for every $1 given to their challengers; incumbents have a habit of voting against campaign finance reform, because life is too easy for them without it. As Mr Schiff acknowledged: "The only way to get it is having enough people in Congress willing to vote against their self-interest." And how likely, frankly, is that?