Close Senate Races an Hour Away


Paul Sarbanes may be in good shape, and Robert Byrd in West Virginia, but the story line for the rest of the Senate races in the immediate region is woe unto incumbents.

In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Charles Robb is running neck and neck with Iran-contra hero/villain Oliver North. The senator is ahead in northern Virginia, but the ex-colonel is ahead most everywhere else. Senator Robb hopes to gain strength from the endorsement by his old adversary, Douglas Wilder. If that will motivate blacks in the state to turn out and vote Democratic, they could provide the margin of victory. Without that, Mr. North could very well win.

A Senator North would be the most colorful and controversial member of the body in decades. It would be fascinating to watch, but only in the sense of watching a train wreck.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford is running neck and neck with Rep. Rick Santorum. The incumbent, who is trailing in the state's conservative suburbs and smaller cities and towns between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, may lose if he can't get a big vote in Philadelphia. That depends on black Democrats, and he has not "connected" with them by all accounts. Since there is a starkly obvious partisan divide in this race, Democrats cannot afford to have any element of their coalition stay away from the polls.

Senator Wofford's ouster would have significant symbolic implications for the next Congress. He won his Senate seat in a special election in 1991 in which he stressed the need for a far-reaching national health insurance plan. His victory helped convince the Clinton administration to seek such legislation in 1993-94. Congress balked, of course, and certainly will not consider such if Senator Wofford is ousted. The message will be clear.

If Virginia and Pennsylvania Senate races are breaking down along the Democratic/Republican and liberal/conservative fault lines, Delaware's seems to be based largely on a personal issue. In the only state Democrats hope to oust an incumbent Republican senator, the challenger, Attorney General Charles Oberly, says the issue is that Sen. William Roth's "been in too long." Senator Roth, seeking an unprecedented fifth term, says the issue is "experience, experience, experience."

Mr. Oberly is 47. He is reminding voters that Senator Roth, 73, once honored the rule of the man he succeeded in 1971. Sen. John Williams declined to seek re-election at age 66, saying no one should serve in Congress beyond age 70. Senator Roth even proposed a constitutional amendment to forbid 70-year-olds from seeking re-election. Mr. Oberly, the state's chief criminal prosecutor, is also stressing crime issues, but the age issue, or rather the change-of-tune issue, is driving his campaign.

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