With the first primaries for next fall's congressional elections looming on the horizon, Republicans look all but certain to keep control of the United States Senate.
The key question: Can they gain enough seats to take away the Democrats' ability to block bills and win amendments the White House desires? Asked another way, can Democrats hang on to the seats they have, thus limiting the GOP's ability to implement its agenda?
Republicans currently hold 55 Senate seats to the Democrats' 45. It takes 60 votes to end debate and cut off a filibuster on the Senate floor. Current projections indicate the GOP won't gain the five seats it needs but may pick up two or three - further limiting, but not eliminating, Senate Democrats' room for maneuver.
"It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that the big question for the 1998 Senate races is not whether Republicans will gain seats but how many they will pick up," says the Cook Political Report, published in Washington.
For President Clinton, the math is crucial. Because most votes in the House of Representatives are decided by a simple majority, his best chance to affect legislation is in the Senate. If Democrats can limit Republican gains, or hold their ground, Mr. Clinton will have more negotiating room during his last two years in office than if the Republicans increase their dominance.
Voter turnout the key
The respected Battleground survey, conducted jointly by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, predicts a "status quo" election for both houses of Congress that will be determined largely by which party best energizes its base and turns out the vote. Right now, they say, that's good news for the GOP.
"The Republicans go into the 1998 election with three advantages - an advantage in turnout patterns, an advantage in the mood of Republican voters, and an advantage of having a clearer issue agenda than Democrats, as well as one with greater potential to mobilize their own base," Ms. Lake says.
Sixteen Republican seats and 18 Democratic seats are up for grabs. (Under the Constitution, one-third of Senate seats are elected every two years.) Of these, five are "open" seats in which the incumbent is retiring: three Democratic (Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio) and two Republican (Idaho and Indiana).
Open seats, in which neither side has the advantage of incumbency, generally offer parties the best opportunity to pick up a seat. The news here is good for Republicans, too. The Cook report says popular Republican Gov. George Voinovich is likely to take the Ohio seat now occupied by Sen. John Glenn (D). The GOP also has a 50-50 chance of taking the Arkansas seat now held by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) and the Kentucky seat now held by Sen. Wendell Ford (D). Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, on the other hand, is likely to take the Indiana seat now held by Sen. Dan Coats (R). All four incumbent senators are retiring at the end of this term.
The most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection are Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) of Illinois and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York. The Cook report rates both races as toss-ups.
Other observers rate Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, Lauch Faircloth (R) of North Carolina, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D) of South Carolina, and Patty Murray (D) of Washington as vulnerable. But Cook rates them all as leading in their races.
In general, both parties are caught in a Catch-22, Mr. Goeas says. To keep their almost-equal poll numbers up, they need to continue to compile a record of accomplishments. Doing so, however, saps the enthusiasm of the parties' most committed voters, who tend to take harder ideological positions than the public at large. In addition, picking fights with the other side not only energizes a party's own supporters, it can also energize its opponents. The question becomes, "Can you raise interest on your side without raising it on the other side?" Goeas says.
In the Battleground 1998 survey, 49 percent of those polled said they preferred a government in which the White House and Congress are controlled by different parties; 40 percent said they preferred that the same party be in control. Of those favoring split government, 43 percent prefer a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, while 28 percent favor a Republican president and a Democratic Congress - the usual mode of split governance from President Eisenhower through President Bush.
Each pollster has advice for his or her party: "The Democrats have the potential for some small gains and can provide protection against losing additional seats by developing a sharper agenda and mobilizing the party's bases around the issues of families, education, economic security, and health care," Ms. Lake says.
"As long as Republicans understand that the game is to roll up accomplishments, they'll do fine," Goeas says. But if they continue their policy of center-right compromise with Clinton, "they must understand that one of the side effects ... is a loss of intensity with the base."