Democrats take off in battle for Congress

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The Independent Online
The US Presidential race of 1996 may be about as tepid a mismatch as a Mike Tyson come-back fight. But the battle for Congress, which the Republicans recaptured two years ago for the first time since the Eisenhower era, has turned into one of the most complex, exciting and unpredictable ever.

The question is simply put: Can the Democrats make the net gain of three that, with the tie-break vote of Vice President Al Gore, would suffice to give them a majority in the Senate, and the net gain of 19 in the House of Representatives that would end Newt Gingrich's two years as Speaker? Right now, however, not even the most brazen of political analysts will venture an answer.

"A fortnight ago I would have given both chambers to the Democrats, but now I'm not so sure," said Charles Cook, author of the respected Cook Report. "It's going to be a fun night on November 5."

And even then it might not be over. If things are really close, the outcome in the House could be decided by run-off elections in December in a dozen Congressional districts in Texas, where primaries that should have been held earlier in the year were held up by a court row over redistricting.

Paradoxically, higher Republican hopes of retaining control of Congress stem from the very decline of Mr Dole. Americans, it is widely and plausibly theorised, are reluctant to entrust too much power to a single party, and prefer divided government. Hence the emergence in the closing stages of the campaign of the "blank cheque" argument.

There was something close to a public acknowledgement that Mr Dole is doomed from the Republican party chairman, Haley Barbour, this week. Should President Clinton be re-elected, he declared, "then the last thing the American people want is for him to have a blank cheque in the form of a liberal Democratic Congress".

And on the campaign trail, Mr Clinton himself makes the same point by omission. He may be cruising to victory, and the polls increasingly suggest a Democratic edge in the generic vote for the 435 House seats nationwide - but he knows full well his own recovery largely reflected public fear of Republican excesses on Capitol Hill. Never does the President explicitly ask for a Democratic Congress to go with a Democratic White House.

Increasingly, he is shifting his public appearances to districts and states where a Democratic candidate for House or Senate is in a close fight. But only indirectly will he make the pitch.

Democratic chances are probably higher in the House than the Senate, where contests traditionally are less influenced by trends in Presidential politics. Of the 34 Senate seats at stake this time, perhaps 10 are still wide open.

To regain control, the Democrats must win eight of these - meaning that sitting Senator John Kerry must defeat his Republican challenger, Governor William Weld, in the blue riband contest in Massachusetts, and, almost certainly, that Harvey Gantt topples arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina.

In the House, however, different factors are at play, most tending to aid the Democrats. They include the national unpopularity of Mr Gingrich and many of his ideological followers first elected in 1994, and the possibility of the Republicans ceding some of their recent gains in the South.

However, there is no guarantee. The public seems more than happy at the way Congress has functioned recently.