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Votes could kill off Chicago fixer: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski may lose his power in a primary election tomorrow, writes Rupert Cornwell

IN THE snow-covered streets around the church of St Stanislaus Kostka, lodestar of the old Polish neighbourhood whence he sprang, Rosty's believers are still legion. 'Yes, maybe he's done something wrong,' admits Stephen Roycewicz, tossing his Alsatian puppy a supplementary winter ration of unmistakably Polish salami. 'But don't all politicians do that? He's no worse than anyone else.'

Likewise Lou Wandzura, 66, a few doors away, a first generation Ukrainian immigrant who runs Giannini and Hilgart - 'the oldest manufacturing company in the Midwest', he claims, and since 1886 suppliers of stained-glass windows for the Catholic churches that stand over the ethnic neighbourhoods of Chicago's North side. 'I'm sure he'll win. He's been tremendously good for us here, and it'd be very hard for anyone else to match him.'

Alas for Dan Rostenkowski, 'Rosty' to friend and foe alike, most people in Illinois' 5th Congressional District don't share these comforting views.

For the first time in 36 years, the career of one of America's most powerful politicians is on the line. Two years ago they redrew the district to include more recent Hispanic neighbourhoods, where the Rosty mystique cuts less ice. More damaging, a Washington DC grand jury has been investigating since 1992 whether the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the main tax-writing body on Capitol Hill, may have embezzled dollars 22,000 ( pounds 14,765) of public money in a crude cash-for-stamps scheme operated through the House Post Office. Other allegations have since surfaced: of phoney payrolls, ghost tenancies, even a car-rental scam.

Nothing is proven. But the risk is real that for Mr Rostenkowski, first elected to Congress when Eisenhower was in the White House, the last hurrah is nigh. And the list of those worried at the prospect begins with Bill Clinton himself.

For the ninth President of the Rosty era, no single mid-term election this year means as much as tomorrow's Democratic primary. Whatever happens, Rosty will still live in the squat and unpretentious three-storey house on West Evergreen Street next door to St Stanislaus, where his ward committeeman father lived before him. But if he is defeated, Bill Clinton will lose his party's canniest fixer on Capitol Hill. Without him, last summer's crucial deficit reduction package could not have been passed; nor would enough reluctant Democrats have stomached the Nafta free-trade agreement. His deal-making skills will be essential if any health-care reform plan is to become law. Small wonder, Mr Clinton came here in person last month to campaign for a man who might soon be accused of criminal larceny.

Gruff-voiced, and with a face that is part bartender, part Marshal of the Soviet Union, Rosty is everyone's image of the Chicago pol. In truth, though, he defied the trade's basic rule. Chicago spends much time and money reassuring visitors (and itself) that it is 'a world-class city'. But step out of that stunning city centre by the lake and the place is provincial and inward-looking. In Chicago, the post of ward alderman is reckoned a far greater prize than the chair of the most influential committee in Congress. Rosty, however, went to Washington. He may spend most weekends at Evergreen Street. But for most people, he symbolises the remote, self-perpetuating and corrupt politics of the capital. In today's US, electoral albatrosses come no bigger.

Were the primary a two-horse race, Rosty might well already be doomed. Fortunately the opposition is divided. The latest polls show him slightly ahead of Illinois state Senator John Cullerton, and comfortably clear of liberal university professor Dick Simpson, who gave him a close run in 1992, and two other outsiders. But on election eve, a third of the voters say they have not decided. The press, too, is split. The gritty Chicago Sun-Times, which boasts a clutch of scoops on Rosty's dubious local operations, urges an end to 'politics as usual' and Mr Rostenkowski's 'continued assault on public integrity'. But the Tribune, staid mouthpiece of the suburbs, reluctantly endorsed him - telling its readers, as columnist Clarence Page explains, to 'hold your nose and vote for him'. Why? The answer, in a word, is pork.

In Washington, Rosty delivers deals and legislation to a grateful President. To Chicago he delivers the bacon - millions, even billions, of dollars worth of federally funded projects, from the dollars 1.9bn 'Deep Tunnel' flood-protection scheme to an extra bilingual employee to help Polish-speakers at the district welfare office, paid for by Social Security in Washington. His election manifesto does not mention the future. It is simply a catalogue of post- 1990 pork barrel. And that is doubtless why even Illinois' Republican Governor, Jim Edgar, has virtually endorsed Rosty. Such benefactors are hard to come by.

Then there's the Machine, the once legendary organisation reaching from mayor to the humblest precinct captain, which in its heyday could have produced a landslide for Caligula's horse, provided the beast was a Democrat. The Machine is a shadow of its former self; but enough remains to be a factor in so tight a contest. Mayor Richard Daley has said he will 'do anything' for Rosty. There are 650 precincts in the 5th District. Mr Simpson and Mr Cullerton will be lucky to put workers into 250 of them to get out the vote. Rosty will cover all 650, with two workers for each. But then again, he needs the help.

At 66, Mr Rostenkowski the campaigner is stiff and uncomfortable. Too many lunches with Washington lobbyists, and giant steaks washed down with his favourite Chateauneuf du Pape, too many all- expenses paid golfing trips to the four corners of the US have blunted his appetite for politics at the grassroots. 'We don't see him in here, we don't know what he's up to,' confessed Tom Zhidelski, a co- ordinator at the North Lincoln Avenue campaign headquarters. Or as Rosty says, 'Doing whatever my handlers and my pollsters tell me to: do you think that's easy for a guy like me?'

True, he treats his well-placed Chicago friends well; at least a dozen have received in recent years hand-built dollars 1,000 maplewood chairs as personal gifts. But these status symbols became an embarrassment when it emerged the congressman had bought them half-price with public money from the House office supply store in Washington. Shortly afterwards Rosty repaid dollars 82,000 to the US Treasury for the chairs and other purchases, 'to avoid any misunderstanding'.

For Mr Rostenkowski, re-election equals if not rehabilitation, at least vindication. But the process is painful: the hard questions of reporters at every turn, the mocking advertisements of Dick Simpson showing the craggy Rosty features embossed upon a postage stamp, and the gnawing worry that sooner or later, he will be indicted - even though like everyone else the grand jury must wonder, why would a man already rich, who could have retired and quite legally taken dollars 1m- plus of unspent campaign funds with him, bother with a dollars 22,000 postage stamp rip-off?

Given the divided opposition, the odds must be that Rosty will secure another two-year term. Certainly on North Lincoln, his campaign workers seem unperturbed. However, an allegorical warning of what might be stands just across the street, at the old Biograph theatre where FBI agents gunned down John Dillinger, America's most wanted man, in 1934. Mr Rostenkowski is not an accused felon (at least not yet). But 60 years on, Chicago could kill off his political career in scarcely less spectacular style, only this time with votes intead of bullets.

(Photograph omitted)