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Democrats Gaining in Key Races, New Surveys Show : Campaign: GOP rolls out attack ads depicting rivals as hypocrites, liars and failures. Electorate's focus on local issues seen giving edge to incumbents.


WASHINGTON — With a smattering of new polls showing Democrats closing the gap in several key races, the Republican Party announced three new attack ads Thursday that portray Bill Clinton and Democrats as hypocrites, failures and liars. And the White House responded by accusing the Republicans of intellectual dishonesty.

The activity, from the tightening of the races to the charges and countercharges, seems typical of the final days before an election. Yet amid the latest round of rhetoric and statistics, there are signs of subtle shifts in public sentiment and political strategy that suggest Democratic Party losses on Nov. 8 might not be as severe as many experts have predicted.

One factor, according to a new poll, is that voters are focusing more on local issues as elections draw closer, a trend likely to benefit incumbents because they have more political heft than newcomers. Most incumbents are Democrats.

Another element is President Clinton's rising popularity in response to recent foreign policy successes, sentiment that may be trickling down to his fellow party members.

Clinton's improving fortunes, which have been apparent in polls for a week, showed up again Thursday in a poll by CNN/USA Today. It found that the number of Americans who approve of his job performance stood at 48%, compared with 46% who disapprove.

In turn, several prominent Democrats also seemed to be closing in races that only two weeks ago looked like shocking losses:

* In Massachusetts, a strong performance in a debate this week apparently helped Sen. Edward M. Kennedy continue to pull away from Republican challenger Mitt Romney. According to a poll released Thursday by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV, Kennedy is now leading by 20 points. Only two weeks ago it was a dead heat.

* In Florida, two new polls showed that Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles had either pulled even or passed Republican Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush, only three weeks after Chiles was down by 10 points.

* In New York, two other polls show a statistical dead heat between Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Republican challenger George Pataki, a state legislator. The number of undecided voters in both surveys has grown.

Some of Pataki's support appears to be bleeding away to an independent candidate, while Cuomo's is stable. The polls were conducted after Cuomo received the surprise endorsement of New York City's Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

A new poll by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press in Washington also found considerably more support this week for Democratic congressional candidates than a few weeks ago, though it found that other factors, besides Clinton, were driving the change.

Overall, 47% of registered voters said that they are likely to vote Republican versus 44% Democratic, a significant narrowing from the 52%-40% margin that Republicans enjoyed Oct. 9 in the poll.

Nonetheless, the survey, which polled 1,577 registered voters between Oct. 20 and 24, suggested that Republicans hold a wider lead among those people considered most likely to vote, based on their past voting patterns. Among that group, Republicans still held a 51%-43% advantage.

One reason Democrats are doing better, the Times Mirror poll suggests, is that voters are thinking more about local issues as Election Day nears. The percentage of voters who say that local issues are important has risen 11 points to 38% in the last three weeks.

That in turn tends to make them look more favorably on incumbents because they have the advantages of seniority and political clout. Indeed, the percentage of people who said that they were inclined to vote for an incumbent has risen by 6 points to 55% in the last three weeks.

It is also possible, the Times Mirror poll authors suggest, that voters think more positively about incumbents because Congress is now in recess and legislators are home campaigning.

Even Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour acknowledged at a press conference here that Democrats are gaining in many races. However, he argued that a shift is to be expected in the late days of a campaign, a time when undecided voters often turn to their traditional party.

Barbour announced that the Republican National Committee is about to spend $2 million to air three new ads on local stations in 25 states attacking the Democratic Party and Clinton in particular.

One ad asks voters: "Are you really fed up with Congress? Well, on Nov. 8 you've got a chance to do something."

Another says: "Their power is crumbling, the Clinton Democrats. Now they're lying about Republicans."

The third, playing off a recently leaked White House memo about ways to cut the deficit, charges that "behind closed doors the Clinton White House is discussing cuts in Social Security and Medicare and billions more in tax increases."

State officials around the country are expected to announce today the states in which those ads will run. It was unclear whether they will appear in California, except on Cable News Network.

The Administration reacted quickly. White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta charged that the Republican ads are a sign the other side is "obviously worried" about a Democratic surge.

Then Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, echoing Panetta, called a briefing at the White House to criticize a national platform that has become the centerpiece in the agenda of 355 Republicans running for Congress. Every Republican who signed the so-called "contract for America" has pledged to vote for cutting taxes and passing a balanced-budget amendment.

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