Poll upset bodes ill for Democrats' prospects

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WASHINGTON - In a stunning reverse for the White House, a senior Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma closely identified with President Clinton has lost a run-off election to a 71- year-old retired school headmaster who spent just dollars 17,000 ( pounds 11,000) on his campaign, writes Rupert Cornwell.

Mike Synar, who has represented the state's second district since 1978, had long been a political oddity - an unabashed liberal sent to Washington by an essentially conservative state, with the temerity to offend the National Rifle Association by supporting gun control, and who defied local farmers by backing higher grazing fees on public land. Even so, his 48-52 per cent loss to the hitherto unknown Virgil Cooper in Tuesday's Democratic primary was a complete upset. The implications ahead of this autumn's mid-term elections are ominous.

The vote has starkly underlined the Democrats' vulnerability in southern and border states, where Mr Clinton is especially unpopular. It further nourishes Republican hopes of up to 30 extra House seats and, conceivably, the seven new seats that would hand them control of the Senate.

The ousting of Mr Synar could be a pointer to the outcome of one of the swing seats in the Senate, in the tight battle to replace outgoing Oklahoma Senator David Boren. Dave McCurdy, who is trying to retain the seat for the Democrats, is distancing himself as much as possible from President Clinton.