Battle for Congress Enters Final Phase

Changed political climate seen in races for the Senate

THREE years after his historic Senate upset, Harris Wofford is again campaigning across Pennsylvania for expanding health-insurance coverage.

The first time, Mr. Wofford's election over a big-name Republican was an alarm buzzer in political Washington - setting the tone for the presidential campaign and President Clinton's White House agenda.

Now, Wofford's tooth-and-nail reelection struggle against a young Republican conservative is a sign of different times.

Going into the final weekend of the election campaign, Republicans are in a strong position to take control of the Senate.

The GOP last ran the Senate when the 1980 Reagan election swept in a Republican majority that held through 1986.

The public yearning for change and responsiveness that animated the 1992 election cycle has soured to frustration and disillusion this year. For whatever reasons, voters do not like what they are getting from Washington, and the benefit is redounding mostly to Republicans.

In Wofford's case, he beat a redoubtable rival, former Pennsylvania governor and US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, in 1991 by sounding a cry for universal health-insurance coverage. But Washington failed to produce health-care reform, and Wofford - who put the issue on the map - was not a very visible player in the debate.

Wofford is running behind Rep. Rick Santorum, one of the so-called Gang of Seven who have led scorching attacks on issues like the House bank overdraft scandal. The real issue in the race this year has been a fundamental debate over the size of government, says political scientist Randall Miller of St. Joseph University.

In most races, Democrats are siding with voters against government. ``You won't see a lot of Democrats defending Washington,'' says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

Wofford race close

Wofford, 11 percentage points behind in a recent poll, has not dropped out of reach. Most races this year have remained highly changeable.

The US Senate is already more conservative than the House is, and the likelihood of the GOP reaching a majority through next week's elections is far higher in the Senate.

Although some once-threatened Democratic incumbents have pulled ahead in recent weeks, such as Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts, the turnover prospects in Senate seats heavily favor Republicans.

No Republican incumbent trails in polls as yet, and only in Minnesota is a Democrat running as well as even in a race to replace a retiring Republican. Democrats, on the other hand, face very competitive elections for 12 of the seats they currently hold.

Republicans need a net gain of seven seats for a Senate majority. Then Bob Dole will become Senate majority leader, setting the chamber's agenda, and senior Republicans will chair committees and subcommittees. Not even the most optimistic Republican sees any chance of reaching 60 seats in the Senate, which would give the GOP the ability to shut down filibusters.

The Democratic resurgence that was widely touted last weekend had stalled out well over a week ago, and some Republican pollsters say that their party's candidates hold the momentum again.

GOP pollster Ed Goeas notes that the Democrats succeeded in cutting the ``intensity gap'' - the level of voter motivation and commitment - in half. But GOP candidates, in general, retain an advantage in the intensity of their voters, worth 3 or 4 extra percentage points at the polls due to higher turnout.

Thirty-five Senate seats are up for election this year, 23 of them currently held by Democrats and 12 by Republicans. That higher level of Democratic exposure is opened to further vulnerability by the higher level of Democratic retirements, creating open seats, which tend to be more competitive.

Democrats are defending only six open seats, compared with three for the Republicans.

Once vulnerable incumbents Edward Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein of California have moved into the lead in their races, although Senator Feinstein in particular is not safe.

Sasser struggles

In Tennessee, Sen. Jim Sasser, a top contender for Senate majority leader in a Democratic Senate, is struggling along in a dead heat with a Republican plastic surgeon, Bill Frist. Virginia's Charles Robb is locked in a similar stride-for-stride race against Oliver North.

Perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent at this point is Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the Senate's most liberal Republican, considered safe a few weeks ago. He now has a small apparent lead against Jan Backus, a Democratic state senator.

Two other Democrats, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman and New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, are each ahead but only narrowly.

Republican Slade Gorton of Washington has only a little stronger margin of safety.

Democratic open seats in Arizona, Maine, Ohio, and Tennessee all have Republican candidates in the lead. Michigan and Oklahoma are too close to call.

For Republican open seats, Minnesota's race is too close to call, and Wyoming shows the Republican candidate in the lead so far.

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