Democrats see chance of Senate

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The race for the US Senate was headed for a tight finish last night, with early returns giving Democrats reason to hope they might score an upset and regain control from the Republicans. Such a result would make President Clinton's victory over Bob Dole so much the sweeter.

With 16 of the 34 Senate election results declared by the television networks the tally stood at an even eight each, but that included one seat, in New Hampshire, which a Democrat captured from the Republican incumbent. In the rest the incumbent parties all won but the Republicans were mightily disappointed by their failure to wrest seats in Georgia, Massachusetts and New Jersey from the Democrats. It was with relief, however, that the Republicans saw Jesse Helms, the hoary 75-year-old right winger from North Carolina, secure a fifth term in the Senate by defeating his wealthy black challenger Harvey Gantt.

Another Republican war horse to hold onto his seat was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who, if he lives, will become the first 100-year-old senator in American history. Mr Thurmond, a legend in the South who will be 94 when he formally takes office in January, had been expected to win and did so comfortably despite the campaign slogan of his rival Elliot Close that this election was "about the next century, not the last century".

Of more possible significance for the overall outcome of the race in the Senate, which the Republicans held by 53 seats to 47 before polling began, was a Democratic victory in New Hampshire by Dick Swett, who ousted the incumbent, Bob Smith, in a contest that had been expected to be very close.

In Massachusetts the Republicans had pinned high expectations on Governor William Weld, viewed by some in the party as a challenger for the presidency in 2000. But John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran who famously denounced the war while it was still going on, held on to win.

The most expensively funded and arguably the most vitriolic Senate race in the country went to Bob Torricelli, a Democrat who shed his seat in the House of Representatives to run for the upper house in New Jersey. And in Georgia Max Cleland, a triple amputee, upset Republican hopes of a Southern gain.

The Republican Party, which swept to power in both houses of Congress two years ago for the first time in four decades, was eyeing the congressional races nervously last night, the suspense having disappeared some months ago from the presidential race. John McCain, a senator from Arizona whose seat is not being contested in this election, said after the early results had come in that he believed the Republicans would win but by a reduced majority.

The Democratic Party, buoyed by the New Hampshire result, saw a chance of winning the Senate and held high hopes they might reclaim the House of Representatives after their spectacular defeat to Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries in 1994. As expected, however, the House results were coming in sluggishly last night and no suggestion of a trend emerged early on.

The Republicans were seeking in yesterday's election to match a record last set in 1930, to retain control of both houses of Congress in two successive election cycles, which most pundits had expected them to do before yesterday since only 34 seats are being contested in this election. In the House they led by 38 seats, 236 to 198. The Republicans' weakness resided in the 72 seats occupied by freshmen House members elected in 1994, more than dozen of whom were judged to be on perilous ground before polling began, largely because of their close association with the deeply unpopular Mr Gingrich.