From laughing with children . . . to schmoozing with contenders . . . to

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 October, 1998, 12:00am

THE hurricane season is fizzling out, the last ball has been pitched in Baseball's World Series and the scarlet leaves of the northeast's dazzling autumn foliage lie shrivelling on the ground.

It is a time of year when Americans are losing their tans and starting to think ahead to the major holiday seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it being a year which ends in an even number, there's just one little obstacle to get out of the way before most of the country can settle down in front of the fireplace for winter.

In nine days' time, the country will go to the polls for mid-term elections - it being halfway through a presidential term - in which the entire House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate and a gaggle of state governorships are up for grabs.

That giant sucking sound the nation is just beginning to hear is the sound of hundreds of millions of dollars being siphoned away on the campaign trail, as candidates take to the hustings and the airwaves to try to convince voters that, even if they aren't exactly the best person for the job, they are a darn sight less disagreeable than their opponent.

From the wheat fields of Kansas to the bayou of Louisiana, from the smoke stacks of Ohio to the golf courses of Florida, the rhetoric level is rising and the campaign strategists are shifting into fifth gear - all in the name of the great American democratic tradition of sending a few hundred politicians to Washington, which, to 99.9 per cent of citizens might as well be another planet.

Unfortunately for the candidates and their party elders, the other sucking sound one can hear is the giant inhalation of breath that comes with a collective national yawn. Turnout in the mid-terms is often low - about 30 per cent - but that does not usually inhibit the energy of the campaigns. In 1998, however, the politicians and party aparatchiks are faced with a rare dilemma: they are unsure what the voters want, or what they should be telling them in order to win their support.

During the summer, pundits were predicting the mid-term polls would represent nothing less than a referendum on the fate of beleaguered President Bill Clinton. But while the long shadow of Monica Lewinsky and the pending impeachment inquiry has been cast over the elections, all that has done is block out the light. This is an election where everyone is campaigning in the dark, desperately searching for clues as to what the people think.

In terms of numbers, one could certainly make a case that Mr Clinton's future does hinge partly on what the November 3 polls bring. A huge gain in House seats for the Republicans would be interpreted by the leadership as carte blanche to push ahead with a bruising impeachment probe and brush off Democratic pressure to reduce the punishment to a censure motion.

Then, once the impeachment issue was sent to the Senate for a final decision, even a moderate gain in Republican seats in the upper chamber would increase the prospects (albeit currently remote) of the two-thirds majority needed to evict Mr Clinton from office.

This scenario, however, seems beyond the wildest dreams even of Democrat House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Indeed, the electoral boost he once sensed from the Clinton scandal is in danger of becoming an albatross around his party's neck. Republican officials are still predicting a gain of 10-15 seats to add to their majority in the House, plus a gain of five or more Senate seats - giving them the magic total of 60 seats which allows a party to block any attempts by their rivals to filibuster legislation.

Having filibuster-proof majorities is the recurring dream of every leader of the filibuster-happy Senate; but in 1998, it seems little more than a pipe dream.

Even Democrats are conceding that their opponents will make gains, if only because of historical precedents; the party of the president in office nearly always loses ground in the Congress in mid-term elections, and not since 1934, when Franklin Roosevelt was in his first term, has the party in the White House picked up seats in both houses.

Mr Clinton is painfully aware of this fact, since Democrats got such a drubbing in 1994 that they lost control of both houses for the first time in four decades. Having added a few extra seats two years later, not to mention extended their share of governorships to 32 of the 50 states, Republicans have established themselves for possibly years to come as the dominant force on Capitol Hill and in the country's heartland.

But in a political world where PR and profile is everything - especially only two years before the presidential race in 2000 - anything less than its expected victory at the coming polls will be a stinging blow to the party's ego.

The elections take place under a Washington dynamic not unlike that of November 1996, when the Republican led-Congress trailed a resurgent Mr Clinton badly in the popularity stakes. And now, even with the threat of impeachment hanging over his head, Mr Clinton enjoys a healthy 63 per cent approval rate, while the approval rate of the Republican-led Congress has recently slumped to 43 per cent.

While Mr Gingrich and company fret over the numbers, they have only nine days to solve the puzzle of why they have become less trusted in the public eye than a philandering, lying chief executive.

Jack Kemp, the party's vice-presidential candidate in 1996, believes he knows the answer. 'Today, the Republican party is adrift, without an agenda and without purpose beyond its seeming preoccupation with saving the congressional seats of its incumbents,' he said this month.

The comments have had Republicans scrambling to dispel the image of them as leaders of a 'do-nothing' Congress, whose few achievements of the past two years appear to pale in comparison with their eagerness to drag the presidency through prosecutor Kenneth Starr's mud.

And there's the rub; the disgust of even Republican voters at the impeachment saga seems to have erased any vague hope the party had of capitalising on the disgust directed at Mr Clinton's behaviour. Candidates are staying away from the issue in their campaign ads, and are squirming to avoid commenting on it in public.

'There is this fundamental belief that this alarm clock is going to go off and everybody is going to say, 'We really despise this guy Clinton, and anybody who has been around him we're throwing out'. It's just not going to happen,' said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.

But the Clinton factor puts Democrats in a similar quandary. Running ads capitalising on voter anger at the Starr probe risks backfiring, and it is likely only those Democrats running in liberal, urban seats outside the more conservative South will try it.

The first Democratic House candidate to criticise Republicans for mounting an impeachment inquiry has been in Washington state, and party colleagues have been loathe to follow his lead. Peter Vallone, a Democrat candidate for New York governor, has also been running a commercial calling on Republicans to choose censure above impeachment - but he is so far behind Republican incumbent George Pataki that it is looking rather like an act of desperation.

With the election taking place in a virtual vacuum induced by Lewinsky scandal paranoia, the resulting tone of the campaigning has been predictably depressing. Republicans are thrashing around for issues which appeal to voters, but are finding that most of them favour their foes.

Health care reform, which is perhaps top of most Americans' agenda, has been blocked this year by Republicans in the Senate, handing a tasty campaign morsel to the Democrats. Then there is safeguarding social security [government retirement pensions], an issue which is more closely associated with Mr Clinton than Republicans, who would rather spend the new budget surplus on tax-cutting than bailing out the social security fund.

But since Democrats in Congress are barely more palatable to voters than their Republican counterparts, it seems both parties are in the same drifting boat.

Filling this issues vacuum is, all too predictably, negative campaigning. Particularly in the Senate, where some of the toughest races are playing out, candidates have shown themselves more than ready to sling mud.

New York, for years the spiritual home of dirty campaigns, is once again living up to its reputation in the Senate race between republican incumbent Al D'Amato, who faces possible eviction at the hands of a congressman, Charles Schumer. Mr D'Amato has wasted no opportunity to accuse his Jewish opponent of not doing enough to support the community's push for a Holocaust settlement against Swiss banks, while Mr Schumer is wringing for all it is worth the accusation that Mr D'Amato is playing racial politics.

A similarly grubby debate has been taking place in California, where incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer is clinging to dear life against Matt Fong, a lacklustre Republican who is well-placed to become the only Chinese-American in the Senate.

Few candidates are likely to emerge from November 3 smelling of roses - but two of them are called Bush.

George junior, whose inevitable re-election as Texas governor will surely enhance his front-runner status for the Republican nomination for president, is accompanied by Jeb, the other son of the former president, who has moderated his right-wing politics to become poised to take over the governor's mansion in Florida.

The biggest nightmare for Democrats is that their supporters will be so disillusioned by the Clinton scandal that they will simply stay at home and leave the voting booths to registered Republicans.

That must also be haunting Mr Clinton judging by a campaign ad running in several states.

The Democratic ad features Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs Clinton, who was so tainted by PR disasters from the early part of the Clinton administration that no candidate would touch her, is now fully rehabilitated - largely on the ratings boost she enjoyed after revelations about her husband's adultery.

The text of her message just about says it all: 'The Republicans are hoping you won't bother to vote. I'm Hillary Clinton and I'm asking you to prove them wrong.'