The other battlegrounds of 1996; The race for Congress

This will go down as the year not so much of loathing Congress, but of leaving it. Americans' disdain for their legislators is well known - indeed, most of the Republican presidential candidates are running against Congress no less than against President Bill Clinton. Overshadowed inevitably by the contest for the White House, congressional elections too are taking place on 5 November, to replace the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. And perhaps the most striking fact is how many familiar faces have opted to retire instead.

By the end of last month, 38 sitting Congressmen (25 of them Democrats) and a record 13 Senators (eight of them Democrats and almost all of them moderates) had announced they would not run. The reasons they give are invariably the same: exasperation at the increasingly polarised, partisan nature of the place after the "Republican revolution" of 1994, and, at least among Democrats, frustration at being in the minority.

But in 1996 that could change, in one chamber at least on Capitol Hill. Two years ago the Republicans gained 52 seats, to gain control of the House for the first time since Eisenhower's day, a Democratic armageddon seeming to prove America had moved irreversibly to the right. But despite the calamity, the Democrats need a net gain this time of only 14 seats to overturn the 230-204 Republican majority (the remaining seat is held by an independent). The shift under way in the South from Democrats to Republicans would seem to argue otherwise; but the strident, grating personality of Newt Gingrich, the Speaker, the perceived extremism of his followers and the wrangle over the budget have broken the Republican spell. Once again a majority of Americans tell pollsters they will vote Democrat for Congress in 1996.

In the Senate the arithmetic is easier for the Democrats, but the reality more difficult. Of the 33 seats up this year, 15 are held by Democrats, 18 by Republicans. To gain parity (and thus the edge, assuming Mr Clinton wins and Al Gore remains Vice-President, with the tie-breaking vote), the Democrats need just three more seats. Instead, they seem bound to lose three in the South - in Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas - and conceivably a fourth in Georgia. In New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan they face tough battles.

And then there is the most glamorous Congressional race of all in 1996, in Massachusetts.

In a veritable Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe of politics, the Democrat John Kerry is being challenged by the state's popular Republican Governor, William Weld. Both men ooze class (Weld is married to a descendant of Teddy Roosevelt; Kerry is a scion of a "Boston Brahmin" family). Both are mentioned as future presidential candidates, and both are rich - Weld is a wealthy lawyer; Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz, the grocery heiress, worth an estimated $650m (pounds 430m). At the start of the year, the polls gave Kerry a slight edge, but the result is a toss-up.

By contrast, most of the 18 Republican-held seats look safer. Intra-party feuding could undermine John Warner in Virginia, while Jesse Helms, that scourge of liberals, gays and foreigners, could have trouble in North Carolina. But the real action is just to the South. Can Strom Thurmond, 93 years young, win an eighth term, which, if completed, would on 5 December 2002 make him the first centenarian senator in US history? So much for term limits.

At the governors' level, 1996 is a relatively quiet year. Only 11 governorships are up in 1996, the most important of them in Indiana, Washington state, Missouri and North Carolina - all held by Democrats. Jim Hunt, the longest- serving governor in the US, looks impregnable in North Carolina, as does Mel Carnahan in Missouri.

But in Indiana and Washington, the Republicans have clear opportunities to increase their current 30-19 grip on the nation's statehouses (Maine's governor is an independent).

RUPERT CORNWELL

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