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Democrats, in Shift, May Hold Line in Senate Races

Elections: Party's prospects brighten as polls find Boxer and Schumer are showing new strength.

October 31, 1998|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a striking shift of fortunes, Republican hopes of reaching a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate are fading as election day approaches and Democratic Senate candidates are making head-turning gains in key states.

The recent upturn in the fortunes of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is being mirrored across the country as Democratic challengers are threatening to knock off GOP incumbent Sens. Alfonse M. D'Amato in New York and Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina.

The situation around the country remains volatile, and some Democratic incumbents in other states, such as Nevada and Wisconsin, are suddenly more at risk. But the bottom line seems to be that Democrats, who just last month braced for big losses in the Senate, now may be able to hold their own on Tuesday.

"We're in better shape today than we were two weeks ago," said Michael Meehan, political director for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Much is at stake for both parties. If Republicans expand their 55-45 edge in the Senate by five seats, they would have a 60-seat majority. That is the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster, the stalling tactic that has been a powerful tool for the minority Democrats, who have been able to block GOP legislative initiatives, from tax cuts to abortion curbs.

Both sides are cautious about predictions in this election year, when the only thing certain has been uncertainty about what is around the corner. And with a remarkable number of Senate races riding on a few percentage points one way or the other, upsets are still possible.

But analysts on both sides seem to agree that the giddy Republicans, who a month ago dared to hope that they might reach a 60-vote majority, should turn to more sober predictions.

GOP 'Unlikely' to Pick Up Five Seats

The GOP might pick up five seats, "but it's unlikely," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "Without some more substantial boost from a national tide, it's hard to do."

Indeed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was never so rash as to predict that the GOP in fact would pick up more than three seats. But many Democrats were in a panic in September, at the peak of President Clinton's ethics problems, when they feared that the Monica S. Lewinsky affair would be a major drag on the party on election day. "Everyone in a close race is going to lose!" moaned one Senate strategist at the time.

But as Clinton seemed to ride out the storm, anxiety about political fallout abated. Meanwhile, Democratic fortunes have improved in several Senate races, thanks to local political forces, such as D'Amato's gaffes in New York and Gray Davis' big lead in the California gubernatorial race.

Democrats breathed a sigh of relief this week when a Field Poll reported that Boxer had expanded her lead over GOP challenger Matt Fong to 51% to 42%. As recently as mid-August, the Field Poll called the race a dead heat. No one thinks that the race has stopped fluctuating, and Republicans pooh-poohed the latest survey. But even viewing Boxer's lead skeptically, Democratic strategists welcome the glimpse of daylight.

In other developments welcomed by Democrats:

* D'Amato has fallen behind in his race against Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer. Polls by Zogby International found Schumer ahead for the first time, with the margin widening to 44% to 38% earlier this week. John Zogby, an independent pollster, cautioned that D'Amato was 8 percentage points down at this stage in his last election and still won, but the pollster still sees the new findings as ominous for the incumbent. "These numbers say he's in real trouble."

* In North Carolina, Faircloth is facing a stiff challenge from the polished, centrist candidacy of John Edwards, a trial lawyer. A mid-October poll showed them running neck-and-neck. Then a local television poll gave Edwards a 49%-43% lead. And in what was widely viewed as a sign of concern about the direction of his campaign, Faircloth recently changed pollsters.

* In South Carolina, Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings is still fighting a tough battle against conservative Rep. Bob Inglis. Democratic strategists are encouraged that Hollings is maintaining a lead in the polls, albeit a narrow one. A Republican strategist confided concern that Inglis' progress against Hollings has stalled. "He's battled this to within 3-4 points and seems to be stuck there," the strategist said.

While things may be looking up for Democrats in some states, new problems are cropping up elsewhere.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold is far more vulnerable than he seemed a month ago.

A recent poll showed Feingold trailing his Republican opponent, Mark Neumann, for the first time, 46% to 43%. A major factor in the race will be money. Feingold has refused to accept soft-money contributions and objected to an ad that the national party wanted to run on his behalf. Neumann, meanwhile is being blanketed with support from the national GOP.

Another growing trouble spot for Democrats is Nevada, where Sen. Harry Reid has only a narrow lead. Republicans are encouraged that the race is so tight this late in the game--a good sign for a challenger like Rep. John E. Ensign.

Moseley-Braun Still Trailing Opponent

In other areas, now as for much of this year, the most endangered Democratic incumbent is Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who for weeks has been trailing GOP opponent Peter Fitzgerald.

And one of the toughest races to call may be the open seat in Kentucky, where everyone sees a tossup between GOP Rep. Jim Bunning and Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler.

It is a complex landscape with many moving parts. But with more races now moving in the Democrats' direction, Republicans' 60-seat dreams appear harder to realize.

"With New York and North Carolina looking hard for them, and Kentucky no more than even, the idea of [Republicans gaining] five is no longer credible," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

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