Dole trails in crucial Midwest states

US elections: As Clinton surveys an increasingly favourable landscape, his Republican rival is fading further into the distance
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Their itineraries last Friday said it all. President Clinton was barnstorming in Texas, where the Democrats haven't won since 1976. Bob Dole was in Florida, trying to protect the electoral votes of a state which for exactly as long has been unswervingly Republican.

With little more than five weeks to go before the election, Mr Dole remains 12 to 15 per cent behind the President in almost every poll. Admittedly the latest CNN/USA Today survey places the gap at only 9 per cent, compared to some 20 per cent a fortnight ago, but the dynamic of the contest has shown little real change since before the summer conventions. And even a nine point margin translates into an electoral college landslide. In 1988 George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by "only" 53 per cent to 46 per cent. He swept the electoral college by 426 to 111.

Today, the Republican challenger is virtually off the board in traditionally Democratic states. He is far behind in states (notably across the industrial Midwest) which he must win to capture the White House and - as the time spent in Florida, Virginia and elsewhere shows - is running only level in states which normally are Republican strongholds.

Outwardly the Dole camp professes confidence: the President's support is soft, it insists, and argues that this weekend's first one-on-one Presidential debate, which the plainspoken Mr Dole enters very much as the oratorical underdog, may change everything.

Thus far however, nothing else has - neither Mr Dole's promised but widely disbelieved 15 per cent tax cut, nor his attacks on Mr Clinton's alleged liberalism, nor his advertising campaign's increasingly direct attempts to raise the celebrated Clinton "character" question. Tacitly admitting its difficulties, the campaign is reducing both spending and the candidate's time for certain states, in effect writing off erstwhile "swing" states like Illinois and Pennsylvania. But even in vital targets like the quintessential Midwestern bell wether of Ohio, the former Senate majority leader still trails badly.

Indeed, unusually early the focus is starting to shift from the Presidential race itself to its implications for the simultaneous Congressional elections on 5 November - whether a heavy Dole defeat might cost the Republicans control of either the Senate or the House, or both.

Those fears in part explain Republican concessions on education spending and immigration curbs which cleared the way this weekend for a 1997 budget deal with the White House. The package was approved by the House on Saturday and is likely to be endorsed by the Senate today. Not only does agreement avert the threat of another Government shutdown like those that were a public relations disaster for the Republicans last year. No less important, it allows Republican incumbents to get back home to defend vulnerable seats.

Thus ends the 104th Congress, installed amid unprecedented fanfare, ruled over by one of the most powerful Speakers in modern times, committed to a "conservative revolution" ushering in a new Republican America in which the frontiers of government would be rolled back for good.

The achievement has been somewhat less. Only one important tenet of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America", welfare reform, has been implemented - thanks more to a cold electoral calculation by Mr Clinton than to any irresistible force of Congress.

A $245bn package of budget cuts foundered on a Presidential veto, as did reductions in the Medicare and Medicaid federal health programmes. Congress did achieve a line item veto (which will benefit the White House more than Capitol Hill) but narrowly failed to push through a balanced budget amendment to the constitution.

Most awkward for Mr Dole however has been the political implosion of Speaker Gingrich, who in one of the swifter enactments of hubris and nemesis in recent US political history, has tumbled from universal adulation to near-disgrace in barely 18 months. The new-age visionary of early 1995 has become America's least popular politician, tarred by an ethics scandal that widened last week when a bipartisan Congressional committee voted to extend a probe into the Speaker's political finances, and suggested he had been untruthful in earlier testimony.

Association with Mr Gingrich is one of the most powerful weapons with which Democrats assail both Republican Congressmen and Mr Dole, co-partner in the "Gingrich-Dole Congress."

Now, many of 1994's intake of young turks have no greater ambition than to save their skins. Far from reducing Government, the new budget actually increases domestic spending by $6.5bn.

As matters stand the Democrats need a net gain of 20 seats to regain the House of Representatives which they lost in 1994 for the first time in four decades, and polls suggest they might. The margin in the Senate is, on paper, smaller: only 4 of the 100 seats need to change hands for the Democrats to recapture a majority. In practice however, the task may be more difficult.

In another telling change of tactics in the last few days, Mr Clinton - who has built his own recovery since the dark days of late 1994 on keeping his distance from Congress - is now actively campaigning on behalf of Democratic House and Senate candidates. Meanwhile Haley Barbour, the Republican chairman, has been obliged to deny reports his party is diverting resources from Mr Dole to the Congressional campaign.