The loss in the Texas election, billed in advance as the first serious electoral test for President Clinton since he took office last winter, is a further notch in a long tally of mishaps and controversies, including the abandonment last week of his civil rights nominee, Lani Guinier.
Though the Democratic candidate, Bob Krueger, had for some time been written off by pollsters in Texas, nobody had predicted the scale of his defeat to the Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the State Treasurer. In the end he suffered a vote against him of 68 per cent to 32 per cent.
The most immediate consequence for Mr Clinton is a narrowing of his party's majority in the Senate to just 56 seats to 44 for the Republicans. Mr Krueger had been appointed, pending the weekend's election, to keep warm the Texas seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen when he became Treasury Secretary.
That perilous majority will be critical to Mr Clinton in the coming weeks in particular, when his economic package comes up for debate and eventual vote in the Senate. First consideration of the proposals, on which Mr Clinton has arguably staked his entire presidency, begins in the Senate today.
It is not without signficance that Ms Bailey Hutchison based her successful campaign on lambasting Mr Clinton's deficit-reduction programme, and particularly its heavy reliance on tax increases. 'I'm going to go in there and vote against the taxes, first and foremost,' she declared after her win.
The Texas defeat simply adds to an impression rapidly taking hold that Mr Clinton's problems may now have accumulated to the point of being almost insurmountable. It also provides a tremendous morale boost to the Republicans, who for weeks have been content virtually to stand on the sidelines and watch Mr Clinton implode.
A New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday confirmed that Mr Clinton's standing with the public is worse than that of any recent president at this stage in an administration. Only 38 per cent of voters said they approved of the President's overall performance, with 47 per cent disapproving. Increasing numbers are apparently viewing the President as an old-style Democratic liberal, too enamoured of tax increases, in spite of his increasingly conspicuous efforts to move towards the political centre.
The President's withdrawal last Thursday of Lani Guinier, the racial equality advocate, as his nominee to head civil rights in the Justice Department continued at the weekend to provoke furious reactions from the left wing of the Democratic Party and civil rights groups. 'This is a very serious situation, which is not going to go away,' Benjamin Chavis of the NAACP, the black rights organisation, warned Mr Clinton yesterday.
The poll, the first since the latest nomination debacle, suggested that a majority of ordinary voters thought the President was right to drop Ms Guinier, depicted by opponents as a radical supporter of positive discrimination in favour of blacks. But by a greater margin they questioned why Mr Clinton had nominated her in the first place.
On the brighter side, there is evidence that most voters have still not given up on Mr Clinton. An impressive 69 per cent of those questioned said he had a vision of where he wants to lead the country. The same number said he was still in a learning phase of his presidency, with only 26 per cent ready to conclude that he is not up to the job.
Leading article, page 19