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He'll Be Back (?)

THE man in the Oval Office must be heaving a small sigh of relief. One of his top congressional allies has won a tough primary election fight.

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation, bested four opponents in the state's Democratic primary. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, conventional wisdom has it that the incumbent will beat his Republican opponent handily in November.

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The campaign became a battle for the undecideds. A final survey of likely voters, published March 7 by the Chicago Tribune, put Mr. Rostenkowski and his next nearest competitor, John Cullerton, in a statistical dead heat; ``undecided,'' at 32 percent, led the pack.

Faced with a tight race - and federal probes into his use of campaign funds - Rostenkowski appreciated President Clinton's campaign visit on Feb. 28. After the vote was announced, an aide to the congressman said that the president was an ``important player'' in the campaign. The Rostenkowski camp can be forgiven the overstatement. Mr. Clinton's visit came as the March 7 survey was being taken. While the survey showed support for the congressman rising marginally, support for Mr. Cullerton jumped. It also showed that anti-Rostenkowski sentiment had peaked.

The more plausible explanation: When many of the ``undecideds'' walked into the polling booth, they looked at Rostenkowski's opponents, looked at the federal dollars the congressman has steered their way and his powerful committee posts, then voted for him.

First elected in 1958, Rostenkowski may to some be a one-man argument for term limits. And speculation is growing that a federal grand jury soon will indict him. If that happens, he will be forced to give up his chairmanships, which would be a major blow to the legislative efforts of President Clinton, who lost another key ally when Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine announced recently that he would not seek reelection this year. An indictment and trial also could derail his hopes for November. For the congressman from Chicago's North Side, it's one down and two to go.

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