Clinton victory may seal future of Congress

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The Independent Online
With President Bill Clinton's lead over his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, seemingly unassailable, the focus of the US election campaign is increasingly switching to whether the Democrats can achieve a clean sweep by recapturing the House and - more difficult - the Senate, on 5 November.

A fortnight before polling day, the latest state-by-state opinion poll by the Hotline (see map) simply confirms that the contest has moved barely a jot since mid-summer. President Clinton is heading for 400 or more electoral college votes, way over the 270 required to win. Mr Dole's strength has been cut back to the Plains and Rocky Mountain states.

By common consent, only a thunderbolt from God or the White water special prosecutor can at this stage produce an upset. Nothing seems able to change the campaign's momentum: neither Mr Dole's promises of tax cuts, nor his efforts to fan the controversy over the Clinton administration's "Indonesian connection" and the huge campaign contributions to the Democrats from East Asian donors, are impressing voters.

Matters might get even worse for the Republicans: two new polls published today and taken after the San Diego debate (which the public, if not the political pundits, reckoned Mr Clinton won) put Mr Dole 22 points behind.

This kind of margin would translate into a Republican disaster to match that of George McGovern for the Democrats in 1972.

The travel plans of the two candidates merely confirm Mr Dole's plight. Mr Clinton will be criss-crossing the South next week, visiting what are normally solidly Republican states, like Alabama and Florida, where the Democrats reckon they have a prospect of winning. More important, a strong presidential showing here could help Democratic congressional candidates regain seats lost in 1994, and prise back control of the House at least.

Mr Dole's itinerary is a mirror image. He is gambling all on winning California and its 54 electoral votes - but, even at this late hour, he was forced to campaign this weekend in the usually rock-solid Republican states of New Hampshire and Virginia, instead of carrying the fight on to Clinton turf. "You can't defend your base and go after the swing states at the same time," the political analyst Charles Cook said.

Increasingly, the battle is seen as over. In what sounded as an obituary on Mr Dole's effort, yesterday's lead story in the New York Times proclaimed that prominent Republicans across the country had all but given up on him. "I thought the Bush campaign in 1992 was the worst ever," it quoted Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin Governor, who was once tipped as a Dole running-mate, as saying, "but the Dole one runs it a close second".

But if a Dole defeat seems inevitable, its margin could determine whether the Republicans retain the House and Senate. In the latter, where the Republicans have a 53-47 seat majority, all hinges on 12 to 14 finely balanced contests, including that for Mr Dole's former Kansas seat, and a titanic struggle in Massachusetts, where the popular Republican Governor, William Weld, is in a dead heat with the sitting Senator, John Kerry.

Mr Cook expects the Republicans to make a net gain of one seat and increase their majority to 54-46, and a Democratic takeover is considered unlikely by most analysts. The House, however, is a complete toss-up. History is on the Democrats' side: not since 1930 have the Republicans managed to control the House for two consecutive terms.

What may help the Republicans is evidence that Americans prefer divided government. "Don't give Clinton a blank cheque," is the message of more and more of the party's congressional candidates - an implicit acknowledgement that Mr Dole is set to lose, and an appeal to voters to place limits on Mr Clinton's triumph.