Battle for US Congress heads toward wild finish
WASHINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) - The battle for Congress headed on Thursday toward a wild finish, with control of the House of Representatives uncertain, the race for the Senate drawing tighter and big-name surrogates fanning out for a frantic final push.
With Democrats facing the difficult task of wiping out narrow Republican majorities in both chambers, the parties pulled out their big guns for the final days of the campaign.
President Bill Clinton, shunned by Vice President Al Gore on the presidential campaign trail, headed for California to rally the Democratic base for House Democrats, who hope to pick up three or four seats in the nation's biggest state.
House Republicans, meanwhile, will sponsor a four-day, 14-state barnstorming tour through the East, Midwest and South by Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose failed presidential bid showed his ability to attract independents and disaffected Democrats to the Republican column.
Democrats need to pick up seven House seats and five Senate seats to reclaim congressional power for the first time since the 1994 Republican landslide.
All 435 House seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake on Tuesday. Mirroring the presidential race, the closest in decades, the battle for the House has been a toss-up all year and the Senate has become increasingly tight, with six Republican incumbents on the ropes.
"Anyone who says they know what will happen is kidding you," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Nobody knows."
Senate Repulicans head home
With a final budget deal with the White House postponed until after the election, Senate Republicans hurried home with a renewed sense of urgency as their slim hold on power looked increasingly threatened.
Polls show Republican Senate incumbents in Delaware, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and Washington in extremely tough re-election fights, an open Florida Republican seat leaning Democratic and endangered Virginia Democrat Charles Robb pulling even in his uphill fight for reelection.
"This may be the last time you have to address me as minority leader," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle told reporters. "There is no doubt that if the election were held today, we'd win back the majority. We've got momentum in each of these races and I think we're going to win."
On the House side, Republicans are confident they will hold their majority and could do even better.
"We'll stay even, or may even pick up a seat," Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.
But Democrats, who enjoy a 26-9 advantage in open seats, claim to be peaking at the right time and point to a host of Republican incumbents who remain below 50 percent in polls.
"We feel optimistic that we can win the six or seven seats that we need to win back a majority in the House," House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt told reporters.
Clinton lends a hand
House Democrats get a hand on Thursday from Clinton, who will reach out to black voters at a rally in Los Angeles before attending fund-raisers for three Democratic candidates. On Friday, he will go to northern California for appearances on behalf of two other Democratic candidates for the House.
While Gore has stayed away from appearances with Clinton, anxious it could backfire by revving up the Republican base and reminding undecideds of the White House scandals, many House Democrats have welcomed the president's help.
In recent weeks the president has focused on energising minority voters, touting economic policies that benefit blacks and Hispanics.
"He's going where he can do the most good," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the House Democratic campaign committee. "He's not going where he's going to be a political liability."
McCain will kick off his tour on Friday with Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. They will start in New York, where Joan Johnson is hoping to become the first black Republican woman in Congress, then work their way through Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Over the weekend they head to battleground states in the Midwest and end up Monday in Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma. They will hit 24 key districts, with McCain "talking about the importance of the Republican Party keeping control of Congress," said McCain spokesman Todd Harris.
But while Democrats are busy trying to shore up enthusiasm in their minority and labour bases, Republicans have been free to reach out to swing voters who will make a crucial difference, said Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for the Republican campaign committee.
"It's the independents who are going to win this election," he said.
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