Poll setbacks for Clinton in battle on free-trade deal

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BY capturing the governors' mansions in New Jersey and Virginia, and toppling the incumbent Democratic mayor of New York, the Republicans swept the board in Tuesday's three most important elections across the US and sent a shudder through President Clinton's White House.

As was to be expected, these 1993 off-year votes signalled above all the disgruntlement of electorates impatient with soaring crime and violence and the slow pace of economic recovery. But they will do nothing to enhance Mr Clinton's standing within his own party as he prepares for a bruising new round of battles on Capitol Hill.

The contest most closely watched by the White House, and certainly the one with the sharpest national message, was in New Jersey. Christine Todd Whitman owed her 50 to 48 per cent victory over the incumbent Democratic governor, Jim Florio, to a relentless pounding of the dollars 3bn ( pounds 2bn) of new taxes imposed by Mr Florio, the largest in the state's history. The lesson will not be lost on Mr Clinton, whose top political strategist, James Carville, handled the Florio campaign.

Less clear-cut were the implications of Rudolph Giuliani's 44,000 vote edge in New York and the 58 to 41 per cent landslide for the Republican George Allen in Virginia, where a naturally conservative Southern state was reverting to type after an unprecedented 12-year Democratic grip on the Richmond State House.

Only in New York and New Jersey did the President campaign actively for his fellow Democrats and in all three races his impact was debatable. According to White House Commmunications Director, Mark Gearan, the results were 'a vote for change', that would not affect efforts to promote the 'change-orientated agenda the President has laid out for the American people'.

None the less, despite the tiny margin of Republican victory in New Jersey and New York, the fact remains for the White House that in the six major elections since President Clinton took office the Democrats have lost every time.

The setbacks will do nothing to help Mr Clinton as he musters all the authority he can to secure Congressional approval for the Nafta agreement linking the US, Canada and Mexico in a single free-trade area.

Despite pulling out all the lobbying stops, the White House is still at least a dozen votes short ahead of the crucial House vote on 17 November. With mid-term elections just a year away, yesterday's triple defeat will have done nothing to persuade recalcitrant Democrats to risk constituents' wrath by rallying to the Nafta banner.

Elsewhere there were few surprises in the mayoral votes in a clutch of cities. As expected, Thomas Menino became the first elected Italian-American to lead Irish-dominated Boston. The favoured candidates won in Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh. But the defeat of David Dinkins in New York means that for the first time in 20 years there is no black at the helm of any of the five largest US cities.

Among the blizzard of local ballots across the country, California voters rejected a voucher scheme for education, Maine and New York became the two latest states to endorse term limits for local politicians, while the cause of gay rights suffered reverses in Cincinnati and several Eastern cities.