Battle for Congress intensifies Clinton lead in polls shifts parties' focus to battle for Hill

GOP control at stake

Dozens of contests too close to call in closing days

Campaign 1996

November 03, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Amid a swirl of controversy over political money, the most expensive campaign in history is nearing a close with President Clinton a solid favorite to win re-election and the fate of the Republican Congress still up in the air.

Clinton holds a comfortable lead over Bob Dole in the latest opinion surveys, as the president attempts to craft the concluding chapter of a remarkable comeback story that began two years ago when his party was humiliated at the polls and he was forced to defend his own "relevance."

Dole, stumping round-the-clock in search of a last-minute, Trumanesque miracle, planned to end his campaign in the former president's hometown of Independence, Mo., in the wee hours of Election Day.

A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed Clinton hovering at 50 percent and Dole at 37 among likely voters. Those figures, which suggest a slight drop for Clinton in recent days and a small boost for Dole, are virtually unchanged from polls taken when the campaign began months ago.

Both major parties are anxiously watching to see whether Clinton can pile up enough votes to help Democrats topple the Republican majority that came to power in the 1994 election, or whether a flood of GOP spending in the final weeks of the campaign has managed to keep both houses of Congress in Republican hands.

Independent analysts give Republicans a slight edge to retain the Senate. But the contest for the House -- which will also decide the political future of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he will step down as Republican leader if his party loses control -- could go either way.

Many of the Republican freshmen who rode into Washington two years ago on a wave of anti-incumbent anger are now fighting uphill for re-election.

Republican officials privately concede that more than a dozen of their House incumbents will lose. They hope those losses will be offset by GOP gains in districts where Democratic incumbents are retiring, particularly in the South, where the Republican Party continues to grow.

Nationwide, many congressional contests remain competitive, analysts say, making it impossible to know for certain which party will secure a majority.

"We have never seen this many Senate races this close," says Charles Cook, who publishes a newsletter on congressional elections.

Dozens of House races, he adds, appear to be "teetering on the edge."

The same cannot be said of the presidential contest. Even Republicans such as Bill McInturff, the Dole campaign's pollster during much of the primary season, are predicting a Clinton victory, by a margin of about 10 percentage points.

Clinton, who won with 43 percent of the vote in 1992, has told aides that he wants to win a clear majority this time, the better to claim a mandate for his second-term agenda.

Looking for a landslide

If Clinton's vote total reaches landslide proportions, many analysts think it could be enough to tip Congress into Democratic hands.

Heading into the campaign's final weekend, Clinton appeared comfortably ahead in more than enough states to gain the 270 electoral votes he would need to win re-election, according to separate 50-state surveys by the Associated Press and the Hotline, a political news service.

The president's strength is concentrated on the coasts -- a solid bloc of Eastern states, extending from Maryland to Maine, and all three states along the Pacific.

That includes California, with 54 electoral votes, the most in the nation. A late push there by Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, appears to have backfired, with polls showing Clinton's lead growing in the state.

Clinton is also running well ahead in the industrial belt where close elections are often decided. Included are Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Jersey, where Dole has pulled his TV ads off the air, as well as in Ohio, Missouri and Michigan.

Dole's strength is concentrated mainly in the Republican states of the Deep South, corn belt and Rocky Mountain West, as well as in Texas.

Still up for grabs are several states Clinton carried in 1992, in some cases because Ross Perot took Republican votes away from President Bush.

They include Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. At the same time, Clinton is within reach of winning states that almost always go Republican, including Florida and Arizona.

Clinton's down-to-the-wire campaign effort has been shadowed by controversy over foreign fund-raising by the Democrats. Clinton responded Friday by calling for a ban on donations from noncitizens, including legal immigrants and U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, which have legally given millions to both parties in recent years.

It was unclear whether the furor would boost Dole's prospects. The Republican nominee has attacked Clinton over allegations of campaign sleaze, accusing Democrats of selling access to the White House.

Perot momentum

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