Races for Congress Tighten Across US As Democrats Attack

ONE week from elections, the race for control of Congress has tightened up sharply.

The Republican tidal wave now looks a little less all-engulfing than it appeared a week or two ago as Democratic candidates have made some progress in the polls against their Republican rivals.

But the latest polls indicate that Republican prospects are still tsunami-sized - with the question of which party will rule the Senate next year completely up for grabs and GOP control of the House less likely but entirely possible.

Yet the tightening up of races renders many of the outcomes next week less predictable and more subject to change with late-breaking events and last-minute spending on campaign commercials.

One reason many Democrats moved up a notch in the last week or so is that incumbents from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana began to find their range - and the vast majority of incumbents in tight races are Democrats.

``The biggest thing is that the Democrats got out of Congress, got out of Washington, and went into attack mode,'' says Republican campaign-consultant Vince Breglio. ``They've attacked with a vengeance in the last two to three weeks.''

Republicans, of course, are in attack mode as well. But in every race Mr. Breglio is advising, Republican challengers have faced a sudden onslaught of negative advertising in the last couple of weeks.

Incumbents also tend to have more money to spend on late TV ads than do challengers. Another Republican adviser, Glen Bolger, notes that in races for open seats, where campaign cash is more equally distributed, Democrats have not gained ground.

Last week, cash and commercials aside, most of the developments were negative for the GOP.

In California, Rep. Michael Huffington, the Republican challenger for Democrat Dianne Feinstein's US Senate seat, had to admit he knowingly employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny for years. The incident seems to have deepened voter doubts about the freshman lawmaker, who sprang into politics two years ago on a flood of his own money and backs a California ballot proposition that would bar many public services to illegal immigrants.

Mr. Huffington's revelation came just days after two leading national Republicans, former Education Secretary William Bennett and Jack Kemp, expressed strong opposition to the initiative, which has been a leading issue for many California Republicans.

Further muddling California Republican solidarity, the GOP mayor of Los Angeles came out in support of Senator Feinstein over the weekend. Feinstein is now ahead and favored to win by political forecasters such as Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report.

In Virginia, GOP Senate candidate Oliver North took a heavy hit from former first lady Nancy Reagan late last week as she accused him in a televised public appearance of lying to her husband (his boss, former President Ronald Reagan), lying about her husband, and withholding important information from her husband. North's candidacy has absorbed similar blows from former White House colleagues and fellow Republicans, however, and he remains neck and neck with incumbent Sen. Charles Robb.

Perhaps the most dramatic Democratic improvement has come in Senator Kennedy's race for reelection to his Massachusetts US Senate seat. Two weeks ago, Kennedy was caught in a dead heat with political newcomer Mitt Romney, a Republican venture capitalist. Now some polls show Kennedy has a lead of 10 to 20 percentage points.

In the background, the improvement in President Clinton's public standing in recent weeks has helped blunt a major Democratic vulnerability - the association with an unpopular president. Mr. Clinton's approval rating now runs close to 50 percent, largely on the strength of foreign-policy successes.

But overall, the Republican field position remains strong.

Republican strength may also be underestimated by polls in two ways. One is that Republican voters have been far more motivated in primaries this year and are more likely to turn out at the polls next week. The other is that undecided voters late in a campaign tend to break for the challenger on election day.

Democratic turf is largely at risk this election. Of the 100 most competitive House races, easily two thirds have Democratic incumbents and Republican challengers. Of the 13 most competitive Senate races, 10 seats are currently held by Democrats (with four incumbents running) and three are Republican (with one incumbent running).

Of the nine open Senate seats, nine are being vacated by retiring Democrats, three by retiring Republicans. Polls in these races show the Republican candidates ahead in Arizona, Maine, Ohio, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Missouri. In the other three - Michigan, Oklahoma, and Minnesota - the races are toss-ups.

The Republican Senate incumbents facing the most severe challenges are William Roth of Delaware, Slade Gorton of Washington, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont. But none have yet lost the lead in their races. The most embattled Democratic Senate incumbents are Mr. Robb in Virginia, Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, Jim Sasser of Tennessee, and Ms. Feinstein of California.

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