WASHINGTON -- Amid a swirl of controversy over political money, the most expensive campaign in history is nearing a close with President Clinton a solid favorite to win re-election and the fate of the Republican Congress still up in the air.
Clinton holds a comfortable lead over Bob Dole in the latest opinion surveys, as the president attempts to craft the concluding chapter of a remarkable comeback story that began two years ago when his party was humiliated at the polls and he was forced to defend his own "relevance."
Dole, stumping round-the-clock in search of a last-minute, Trumanesque miracle, planned to end his campaign in the former president's hometown of Independence, Mo., in the wee hours of Election Day.
A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed Clinton hovering at 50 percent and Dole at 37 among likely voters. Those figures, which suggest a slight drop for Clinton in recent days and a small boost for Dole, are virtually unchanged from polls taken when the campaign began months ago.
Both major parties are anxiously watching to see whether Clinton can pile up enough votes to help Democrats topple the Republican majority that came to power in the 1994 election, or whether a flood of GOP spending in the final weeks of the campaign has managed to keep both houses of Congress in Republican hands.
Independent analysts give Republicans a slight edge to retain the Senate. But the contest for the House -- which will also decide the political future of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he will step down as Republican leader if his party loses control -- could go either way.
Many of the Republican freshmen who rode into Washington two years ago on a wave of anti-incumbent anger are now fighting uphill for re-election.
Republican officials privately concede that more than a dozen of their House incumbents will lose. They hope those losses will be offset by GOP gains in districts where Democratic incumbents are retiring, particularly in the South, where the Republican Party continues to grow.
Nationwide, many congressional contests remain competitive, analysts say, making it impossible to know for certain which party will secure a majority.
"We have never seen this many Senate races this close," says Charles Cook, who publishes a newsletter on congressional elections.
Dozens of House races, he adds, appear to be "teetering on the edge."
The same cannot be said of the presidential contest. Even Republicans such as Bill McInturff, the Dole campaign's pollster during much of the primary season, are predicting a Clinton victory, by a margin of about 10 percentage points.
Clinton, who won with 43 percent of the vote in 1992, has told aides that he wants to win a clear majority this time, the better to claim a mandate for his second-term agenda.
Looking for a landslide
If Clinton's vote total reaches landslide proportions, many analysts think it could be enough to tip Congress into Democratic hands.
Heading into the campaign's final weekend, Clinton appeared comfortably ahead in more than enough states to gain the 270 electoral votes he would need to win re-election, according to separate 50-state surveys by the Associated Press and the Hotline, a political news service.
The president's strength is concentrated on the coasts -- a solid bloc of Eastern states, extending from Maryland to Maine, and all three states along the Pacific.
That includes California, with 54 electoral votes, the most in the nation. A late push there by Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, appears to have backfired, with polls showing Clinton's lead growing in the state.
Clinton is also running well ahead in the industrial belt where close elections are often decided. Included are Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Jersey, where Dole has pulled his TV ads off the air, as well as in Ohio, Missouri and Michigan.
Dole's strength is concentrated mainly in the Republican states of the Deep South, corn belt and Rocky Mountain West, as well as in Texas.
Still up for grabs are several states Clinton carried in 1992, in some cases because Ross Perot took Republican votes away from President Bush.
They include Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. At the same time, Clinton is within reach of winning states that almost always go Republican, including Florida and Arizona.
Clinton's down-to-the-wire campaign effort has been shadowed by controversy over foreign fund-raising by the Democrats. Clinton responded Friday by calling for a ban on donations from noncitizens, including legal immigrants and U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, which have legally given millions to both parties in recent years.
It was unclear whether the furor would boost Dole's prospects. The Republican nominee has attacked Clinton over allegations of campaign sleaze, accusing Democrats of selling access to the White House.
Over the final week of the campaign, the most significant movement appeared to be toward Perot, the Reform Party candidate, who moved above 10 percent in several surveys for the first time.
However, the Texas billionaire fell back to 7 percent in the latest CNN/Gallup poll. He is well below the 19 percent he won in the 1992 election and is not expected to carry a single state.
If Clinton wins, becoming the first Democrat re-elected since Franklin D. Roosevelt, he is likely to proclaim a mandate centered on his pledges to balance the federal budget, protect Medicare and Medicaid and provide tax breaks to families of college students.
"This is a president who, following the 1994 election, was virtually excluded from the lawmaking process," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. "So it represents a tremendous recovery. It's not a blank check, though. He's been very careful in what he's promised."
If Dole wins, his 15 percent tax cut plan would likely drive many of his decisions as president. A Dole victory would almost certainly mean that a Republican Congress would remain in control, which would be needed to help make the spending cuts he has promised to balance the budget.
This year's election appears to be unlike the past two national elections, in 1992 and 1994, when voters were demanding change and incumbents were under siege.
The public's mood seems less angry, reflecting increased consumer confidence and greater satisfaction with the nation's direction.
"There isn't the same fire against incumbents this year," notes Paul Maslin, a Democratic consultant.
Officeholders in both parties have been aided by a burst of election-year activity last summer, when Congress approved popular laws overhauling the welfare system, preserving health insurance for workers who change or lose jobs, and raising the minimum wage. That gave both Clinton and congressional Republicans accomplishments to boast about this fall.
While Clinton's popularity has soared, polls also show that public approval for the way Congress is doing its job is at its highest point in years.
As always, voter turnout is regarded as critical. Analysts are predicting that a smaller proportion of the electorate will participate this year than in 1992, despite aggressive turnout operations by both parties and their allies, ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Christian Coalition.
But the deciding factor in 1996 could turn out to be the unprecedented amount of money that has poured into the campaign -- an estimated $1.6 billion for the presidential and congressional races combined, a figure that does not include hundreds of millions more spent on races for governor, state legislature and ballot initiatives.
A $35 million effort by organized labor to unseat freshmen Republicans gave an early advantage to Democratic challengers several dozen districts.
An even more expensive Republican counterattack in the final weeks may have reversed the tide that was threatening to upend the Republican Congress.
"Ten days ago we were scared to death," says McInturff, whose Republican polling firm represents many of the most vulnerable GOP freshmen. If the GOP Congress survives, the infusion of Republican cash, which has allowed the party's freshmen and their allies to outspend challengers, will have made the difference, he says.
Even by the standards of modern politics, the level of spending this year has caused political veterans like McInturff to exclaim "how unbelievable and different 1996 is from any other election in American history. We've never seen money like this. Nobody's ever spent money like this."
As much as $3 million to $5 million has been spent in some of this year's races for House seats, which typically see expenditures in the $600,000-$1 million range.
Much of the money has come from outside groups, from labor unions and environmentalists to the National Rifle Association and corporate coalitions, which have conducted campaigns designed to influence the outcome of the congressional contests.
The highest spending has come in Senate races. In at least four states, total spending by Senate candidates will top the $10 million mark.
A record number of senators are retiring this year -- 14 -- and many of the closest races are for the seats they are vacating.
All 435 House seats and 34 Senate seats are at stake in Tuesday's election. Democrats would need a total gain of 19 in the House and at least three in the Senate to take control of both bodies.
At least 10 Senate races -- five for Democratic-held seats and five now occupied by Republicans, are considered tossups.
Unless virtually all the close races are won by Democrats, or unless some other surprises develop, Republicans will likely retain their majority. Notable Senate races include:
The South. Four senior Democrats -- Sam Nunn of Georgia, Howell Heflin of Alabama, David Pryor of Arkansas and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana -- are retiring. Republicans are favored to win the Alabama race, but the other three are rated tossups. Clinton, secure in his own re-election chances, is making 11th-hour campaign stops in states where Democratic Senate candidates are in tight races, including Arkansas and Louisiana yesterday and Iowa tomorrow.
New Jersey. The campaign to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley may be the nastiest in the country. Perhaps as a result, as many as one in three voters are undecided, and the race between Reps. Bob Torricelli, a Democrat, and Dick Zimmer, a Republican, is rated a tossup.
Massachusetts. Polls have shown a dead heat for months in the match between two of the Bay State's premier politicians, Democratic incumbent John Kerry and Gov. William Weld. The race has national implications, particularly if Weld, a Republican moderate with presidential ambitions, should prevail in the heavily Democratic state.
South Dakota. The most vulnerable Republican incumbent is South Dakota's Larry Pressler. His 18-year Senate career is threatened by Democrat Tim Johnson, well-known because he is the state's only congressman.
North Carolina. Sen. Jesse Helms, 75, is favored to win his rematch with Harvey Gantt, the Democrat he defeated last time. The two candidates have spent a total of more than $18 million, making this the most expensive Senate race this year.
South Carolina. At age 93, Republican Strom Thurmond is the oldest senator in history. Now he wants to become the first centenarian to serve in Congress. If his health holds out, he should make it. His Democratic opponent, Elliott Close, a millionaire developer in his first political race, appears to pose no threat.
Pub Date: 11/03/96