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Tuesday, October 27, 1998 Published at 09:55 GMT

Lewinsky ghost looms across South

Washington Correspondent Bridget Kendall reports from southern Alabama

Joe Turnham is already despondent. A clean-cut, 38-year-old businessman with a blonde wife and two small children, Mr Turnham is an evangelical Christian who is anti-abortion, pro-gun and a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, That, he thought, would give him a good chance of unseating the Republican incumbent in Alabama's third District.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Joe Turnham is one of a dozen candidates who was handpicked to lead the "Take back the South" strategy for these midterm elections. His "faith and values" profile seemed perfect to lure back the devout white conservative voters who for the past decade across the American South have been defecting to the Republicans. Politicians like Mr Turnham were supposed to give the Democrats a chance to show that, though battered, the party was not yet beaten.

That was before Monica Lewinsky.

Now - though potential voters everywhere claim they are sick of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and declare it won't influence them - it does look as though the Democratic Party is on the defensive.

The hoped-for backlash against Republicans for seeking an impeachment inquiry has not materialised. The party's star fundraiser and campaigner - Bill Clinton - has been hobbled.

Instead of sweeping through the country, dropping in on campaign rallies, the president has restricted himself to a few, mostly private, appearances and stayed in Washington to devote himself to foreign policy.

The inference is clear: In an election season where the Monica Lewinsky factor looms like a ghost behind every tight race, few Democrats want to risk being seen standing next to the president.

Scandal hits home

Already candidates like Joe Turnham in Alabama are worrying about the impact of direct mailings accusing them of being too closely allied to Bill Clinton.

"My opponent has completely outspent me," Joe Turnham complains as he and his communications director rattle through the Alabama countryside in their campaign mini-van.

"For every sign I put out by the side of the road, my opponent can put five signs," he continued. "Direct mailing, phone banks, TV and radio ads - any way I try to reach my voters, he can outspend me three or four times."

Bitterly he recalls how eager the Democratic Party was that he should run a year ago, yet how little financial support they now are willing to give him.

...and the nation

Mr Turnham's fight in Alabama is just one example of the Democrats' uphill battle. The Republicans are pouring more than twice as much money into House and Senate races as Democrats. By September the Republicans were reporting $55 million in so called "hard money" that can be used in direct campaigning. The Democrats by contrast were reporting less than $27 million.

In this last week of campaigning a Republican plan called "Operation Breakout" reaches its culmination. About $20 million dollars of so-called soft money will be spent by Election Day on issue advertisements that indirectly extol the virtues of candidates or lambaste their opponents.

In the 50 or so close races for the House and the handful of races which will determine the outcome in the Senate, the Democrat National Committee is having to choose carefully.

Instead of daring plans to unseat Republicans, as in Joe Turnham's race, it's Democratic senators that are top priority.

Losing Democratic friends in the Senate is not something Bill Clinton can afford to do. It's no secret that the Republicans are trying to pick up five senate seats they need for a 60-seat filibuster-free majority. The Senate has the final say on presidential impeachment.

The final hope for Democrats in trouble is turnout. If loyal Democrats, like the black voters who make up 25% of Joe Turnham's district could be persuaded to vote, he'd probably win.

There are some 75,000 registered black voters in this corner of southern Alabama - about the same number as the total sum of those who'll bother to vote. So every Sunday Joe Turnham visits black church after black church, appealing to the black Democrats that nation-wide opinion polls have shown remain Bill Clinton's most fervent supporters.

But these people, like everyone else in the nation, are tired of scandal and want to put it behind them.

"I don't think I'll bother to vote this time, I have too much else to do," said one old lady as she left the Pine Hill Baptist Church in Phenix City Alabama.

And that is the problem for Bill Clinton and the Democrats. In these times of relative prosperity, it's Republican incumbents who'll benefit. The scandal-weary public does not really see these elections as a referendum on the president's behaviour. Yet if the Republicans do well and strengthen their hold on the House and the Senate, there's little doubt they will see their victories as a mandate to forge ahead with impeachment.

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