WASHINGTON -- With only a month left in the 1996 campaign, the outlook is for a Senate next year that looks very much like the one today, even if, as now expected, President Clinton defeats Bob Dole by a wide margin.
A year ago Republicans were riding so high, it seemed possible they could gain the seven seats needed to bring their present 53-vote majority to 60, enough to crack filibusters and the ability of the Democratic minority to thwart their legislation.
A month ago Democratic hopes had soared to the point it seemed they had a realistic chance of winning the three seats that would deadlock the Senate at 50-50 and allow second-term Vice President Al Gore to give them control for the next two years.
But the Senate contests have not been nationalized, that is, linked with voters' apparent intention to return a Democrat to the White House. Most of these campaigns now reflect the political trends within their states, or strengths and weaknesses of candidates that have nothing to do with ideology.
Hope for both sides
The Republicans' original high hopes rested first on the prospect they would win open seats in states where long-established Democrats were retiring -- Howell Heflin of Alabama, Sam Nunn of Georgia and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.
They also believed several Democratic incumbents -- John Kerry of Massachusetts, Max Baucus of Montana and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- would be vulnerable to strong Republican challengers.
As the campaign has evolved, those open seats have proved more elusive than expected. Republican state Attorney General Jeff Sessions is leading Democratic state representative Roger Bedford in Alabama. And another Republican state legislator, Woody Jenkins, is narrowly favored over Democratic state Treasurer Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.
But Democratic Secretary of State Max Cleland is running far ahead in Georgia, and so is Democratic Rep. Richard Durbin in Illinois. And three of the putatively vulnerable incumbents -- Kerry, Baucus and Wellstone -- hold clear although not insurmountable leads in polls.
The bottom line is that the Democrats may lose only one or two of the 15 seats they have at stake Nov. 5. And that means they could regain control with only four or five successes in contests for seats now held by Republicans.
Still, some of the Republican seats that seemed there for the taking -- those of retiring senators William Cohen of Maine and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, for example -- are proving elusive.
The lesson is that in politics something that looks good on paper may look different to quirky electorates. Who would have imagined, for example, that Minnesota's Wellstone, the most liberal member of the Senate, would appear so strong when conservatism has been such a strong current?
There is still the potential for surprises. Some strategists believe, for instance, that the polls overstate support for South Carolina's Strom Thurmond because respondents are reluctant to say they are against a political institution.
If the contest for control of the Senate becomes a cliffhanger, here are a few races to watch carefully:
In New Hampshire, Republican Bob Smith is running only even against former Rep. Dick Swett. This is a state that ordinarily elects Republicans but is trending toward Clinton and the Democrats this year.
In South Dakota, Republican Larry Pressler is rated vulnerable every six years and always survives, but his opponent, Rep. Tim Johnson, is more formidable than usual.
In Kansas, the seat being vacated by Dole isn't as safe for the Republicans as might be expected. Republican Rep. Sam Brownback is favored, but Democrat Jill Docking isn't being written off.
These are the kinds of races the Democrats need to win to make that net gain of three for control, and the odds are long against it. But two years ago, who would have thought Bill Clinton would be a prohibitive favorite?
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/07/96