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US ELECTIONS: Republicans likely to hold on to power in Congress

`Scandal over seamy Democratic fundraising has rekindled the issues of ethics and character'
As President Bill Clinton's lead diminishes in these closing days of the campaign, prospects are receding that the Democrats will regain control of Congress and thus be able to close down the many Capitol Hill investigations into White House ethics that threaten to bedevil a second term.

As recently as a week ago, when the President was ahead of his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, by as much as 18 per cent in some polls, the Republicans' two-year reign in Congress looked as if it might be rudely and quickly ended. Now, however, the party is widely expected to cling to a majority in the House of Representatives, and even increase its 53-47 edge in the Senate.

On balance, yesterday's crop of polls shows Mr Clinton clearly ahead. But the margin is shrinking - to 13 per cent according to CNN/USA Today and as little as 3.8 per cent in a Reuters/Zogby survey - and a potential landslide has turned into what could be a near repeat of 1992, when Mr Clinton prevailed by 5 per cent in the popular vote and by 370 to 168 votes in the electoral college.

In recent elections, presidential coat-tails have rarely been long. Now the drumbeat of scandal over seamy Democratic fund-raising practices has indirectly rekindled the familiar issues of Clinton ethics and "character", and made them shorter still.

With 34 seats in contention this year, the Democrats need a net Senate gain of only three, assuming a Clinton victory tomorrow that would leave Vice- President Al Gore with the decisive casting vote in the event of a tie. In practice though, all depends on a dozen or so very close races, and to prevail the Democrats must gain Republican seats while losing none of their own - including in the South, a region becoming as Republican in Congressional elections as it traditionally has been in presidential voting.

In Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana, Democratic incumbents are retiring. In each case, Republicans have at least an even chance of victory. In Alabama they are clearly favoured, and in Arkansas Congressman Tim Hutchinson has an opportunity to inflict embarrassment on Mr Clinton in his home state by becoming its first Republican senator since 1932. Adding to the pressures of history are those of the religious right: the Christian Coalition of Pat Robertson yesterday was aiming to distribute 45 million "voter guidance" leaflets at churches throughout the country, which, though technically non-partisan, leave little doubt that on ethical and "family-value" grounds, Mr Dole is infinitely to be preferred to Mr Clinton. In the Bible Belt South especially, the White House is worried the leaflet campaign could damage not only the President but also other Democrats on the ticket.

In other fiercely contested seats as well, no Democrat can feel secure. In Massachusetts, Senator John Kerry may have opened up a slight lead over the Republican Governor, William Weld, thanks to a strong candidates' debate performance last week. And the avowedly liberal Paul Wellstone, once the Republicans' prime target for a gain, looks as if he will retain his seat in Minnesota.

Elsewhere, however, Republicans are faring better. In North Carolina, Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte, is still underdog in his second attempt to unseat the arch-conservative Jesse Helms, which he must do if the Democrats are to have a realistic hope of recapturing the Senate. Next door, in South Carolina, Strom Thurmond is all set to secure his eighth consecutive term at the tender age of 93. If he completes it, he would be first centenarian senator in US history.

In the House of Representatives also, the Republicans are confident of keeping control after a period last month when their 19-seat majority seemed ripe for the snatching. Now, enough of the 70 Republican new members of 1994, whose radical conservatism stamped the 104th Congress, look safe enough to ensure Newt Gingrich remains Speaker in the 105th. As in the Senate, the Republicans are banking on further gains in the South to cushion losses elsewhere.

In addition, 11 state governorships are at stake this week. No dramatic changes are in the offing, but the Democrat Jeanne Shaheen is poised to become the first female governor in New Hampshire's history, while in Washington state Gary Locke is favourite to become the first the country's first Asian-American governor.

Leading article, page 13