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In Congressional Contests, It's 'a Game of Inches'

Politics: Late counts and recounts are shaping up in seven House races and one for a Senate seat. But the results won't change the projection on GOP's control.


WASHINGTON — A Democratic congressman from New Jersey and his GOP opponent each claimed to be leading by a couple of hundred votes of about 293,000 cast. A Republican incumbent who represents Palm Beach, Fla., claimed victory as he clung to a 600-vote lead.

And in Southern California, two House candidates were refusing to concede defeat in races that analysts had already called for their opponents.

Across the country, as the presidential recount in Florida mesmerized the nation two days after the election, an unusual number of late counts and recounts were also shaping up Thursday in as many as seven critical House races and one critical Senate race in Washington state.

The eventual outcomes would not change the projection that Republicans, by hair's-breadth majorities, will organize both houses when the 107th Congress convenes in January.

The GOP is projected so far to have a 50-49 edge in the Senate--with the outcome of the hotly contested Washington seat still unknown. And in the House, with reversals in a few races still possible, Associated Press projected a Republican majority trending toward 221-212. That would mean a Democratic pickup of two seats. Two House members are independent.

The final tallies, trickling in over the coming days, should prove important over the next two years because the House and Senate are closely divided on issue after issue, from government spending to gun control, from campaign finance reform to managed health care reform.

In a review of unofficial returns from all 435 House races, an astonishing number were decided by 2 percentage points or less--14 in all. Another six were decided by margins of 4 percentage points or less.

"A game of inches," political analyst Amy Walter called the outcomes. "There's a lot of woulda, coulda and shoulda here."

For perspective, the closest victory in the 1998 campaign was the 515-vote margin that put Republican Don Sherwood of Scranton, Pa., into the House. But in some of this year's races, that margin might be called comfortable.

Consider the contest between Democratic Rep. Rush Holt and Republican Dick Zimmer in central New Jersey's 12th District. Associated Press reported after the Tuesday vote that Holt was up by 56 votes, of more than 293,000 cast. A state Web site dated Wednesday showed Zimmer up by 371 votes. But both campaigns said those numbers were out of date as election officials continued to canvass absentee and provisional ballots. Each camp claimed to be up by a couple of hundred votes. The outcome may not be known until next week.

Even then, a recount may be in the offing.

An automatic recount was triggered in Florida's 22nd District, which includes parts of Palm Beach County, disputed territory in the presidential contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. There, 10-term Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. led Democrat Elaine Bloom by about 600 votes--a margin of less than half of 1% of the 210,000 votes cast. Shaw claimed victory but Bloom has not conceded.

Democratic spokesmen in Washington, D.C., said that recounts also are expected in the 2nd District of Minnesota, where Democratic Rep. David Minge was apparently ousted Tuesday by Republican Mark Kennedy, and in Michigan's 8th District, where the GOP's Mike Rogers appeared to prevail over Democrat Dianne Byrum in a contest for an open seat. Unofficial margins were excruciatingly close. Rogers and Kennedy were both winning by about 500 votes.

In addition, Democrat Gerrie Schipske, a candidate in Long Beach's 38th District, said that an apparent 1,616-vote margin of victory for GOP Rep. Stephen Horn could be overcome with returns still expected from thousands of absentee and provisional ballots. And Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), the apparent loser to Democrat Jane Harman in the 36th District, still contended that uncounted absentee ballots could reverse an unofficial 48.4%-46.7% defeat.

National Republican leaders said they were also watching for the possible reversal of a 50%-46% Democratic victory in Washington state's 2nd District.

Such narrow margins across the country showed that many of the competitive races for the House were every bit as tight as the races for the Senate and the White House. The race for the Senate seat in Washington state, in which Republican Sen. Slade Gorton was locked in a tight struggle with Democrat Maria Cantwell, could take days or weeks to decide.

Holt, the New Jersey congressman, upon learning of his initial 56-vote lead, said in a prepared statement: "I want to thank each and every person who cast their vote for me. This shows every vote counts."

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