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Twists of Fate Put Majorities in Congress at Stake


WASHINGTON — When a prominent Democratic senatorial candidate was killed in a plane crash last month, the party's chances of winning the Senate were widely assumed to have been lost.

But as the titanic battle for control of both chambers in Congress reaches its climax Tuesday, this unpredictable political year has been marked by yet another surprise: The Senate remains up for grabs.

It was clear from the start of this election cycle that the battle for the House, with its slim Republican majority, was going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight--and that's just how it has turned out. The outcome is likely to depend on a small number of tossup races scattered across the nation, including a handful in California. And whichever party wins the majority, the margin may be less than the GOP's current seven-seat advantage.

Control of the Senate, by contrast, had been seen as a longshot for Democrats--and the odds seemed to get longer with the death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was running a strong race to defeat GOP Sen. John Ashcroft.

But a variety of recent developments has Republicans concerned about the fate of their 54-46 Senate majority.

In Missouri, Carnahan's widow is spearheading a strong campaign to beat Ashcroft. In Delaware, 79-year-old Republican Sen. William V. Roth Jr. fueled the view that he may not be up to another term when he lost his balance and fell twice in recent weeks--once before television cameras. In Montana, an underdog Democratic challenger to Sen. Conrad R. Burns has crept to within 1 percentage point in recent polls.

Republicans remain favored to retain a Senate majority, though it may well be less than their current four-seat edge. And enough Senate races remain neck-and-neck that a Democratic takeover is not as far out of reach as most analysts once thought.

New York Could Make History

In the battle for the Senate, one contest stands out for its marquee value: New York, where voters have the potential to make history by electing a sitting first lady to represent them. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has enjoyed a lead in the polls over GOP Rep. Rick Lazio, but recent surveys showed the race tightening as Tuesday's election approaches.

A Clinton victory in the contest to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would establish her as a leading voice for the party's liberal wing. But a Lazio win would provide his party with a key gain in the fight for the Senate.

In three states, the campaign season has provided bracing reminders of how politics can be buffeted by forces far beyond the control of any candidate or political strategist. Aside from the fatal crash in Missouri, the deaths of two senators changed the political outlook for a state and the nation.

When Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia died in July, he was succeeded by former Gov. Zell Miller, a popular Democrat. That reduced the GOP Senate majority by one, and Miller is heavily favored to retain the seat in Tuesday's vote.

When Republican Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island died in October last year, his son Lincoln was appointed to fill the seat until this month's vote. That gave Lincoln Chafee the advantages of incumbency he would not have had, and he is favored to hold the seat for the GOP in an otherwise Democratic state.

In Missouri, when the small plane piloted by Carnahan's son and carrying the governor and an aide to a campaign event crashed Oct. 16, most political analysts--as well as Democratic officials--assumed that Republican Ashcroft could count on winning reelection. And that looked like the end of all Democratic hopes for the Senate, given the status of other races at the time.

Sympathy, and a Surge in the Polls

But the outpouring of sympathy for the Carnahan family was accompanied by a surge in the polls for the deceased candidate. Under state law, it was too late for Carnahan's name to be removed from the ballot and be replaced by another candidate's. But the Democratic acting governor announced he would appoint Carnahan's widow to the Senate if Carnahan won on election day. Ashcroft has narrowed the gap in recent surveys, but he has been constrained in how aggressively he can campaign.

Meanwhile, Democratic fortunes were improving in other states.

In Delaware, Roth has been fighting the toughest reelection battle of his 30-year Senate career. His Democratic opponent, Gov. Thomas R. Carper, has been reluctant to openly make the case that Roth is too old to serve another term. But voters were reminded of Roth's physical limits when, in mid-October, he collapsed in front of television cameras, the second time this fall he has fallen during a public appearance. His staff said he has an inner ear problem that gives him vertigo and his doctors gave him a clean bill of health, but the TV footage was not flattering.

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