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Faux Landslide

The conventional outlook now for Nov. 5 is that Bill Clinton wins handily, but the Republicans retain control of the House and Senate.

Worrisome even to some Democrats is that Clinton might win by an apparent landslide. This could set unrealistic expectations and tempt Clinton to overreach, without enough of a policy base or reserve of trust for him to withstand an economic or foreign policy challenge, or a siege of scandals.

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The American political system can be deeply contrarian. The balance of powers keeps institutions in check. And voters themselves eventually act to keep any one individual or party from gathering too much strength for too long. The very prospect of a landslide motivates some voters to vote against a candidate they might otherwise vote for - to reduce his margin to something closer to his intrinsic value.

Clinton's double-digit lead in the polls and his advantage in key states like California could produce a wipeout for Bob Dole. The debate series, which starts soon, could jar things, especially if Ross Perot ever gets to natter at Mr. Dole. But would a one-sided Clinton win absent a Democratic sweep be a true landslide?

In part, this election is a generational mismatch, but not because of the candidates' ages. Ronald Reagan was older than both Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 by a wide margin, and yet he was closer to the underlying political urge felt by Americans who wanted to adjust the balance of the liberal initiatives that had dominated Washington for decades.

Now the demographic forces in America show a fast-expanding senior sector, as well as wider ethnic and religious diversity. The population is expanding: The US has added 100 million people to its numbers since 1950 and is on track to add another 100 million - 20 million a decade - in the next half century. And although the businesses that deploy the new technologies that permit competitive restructuring may retain their GOP preferences, the technologists themselves who are leading societal change are comfortable with the Democrats. To a remarkable degree, America is growing and renewing itself, and Clinton has caught this generational spirit better than has the reminiscing Dole.

Three factors dominate. First, economic anxiety persists, especially among women. But Clinton benefits from the continuing economic expansion and dulled inflation. Second, although voters feel the country has lost its moral compass, they have yet to link Clinton's personal flaws to the way he governs. The third factor is a low regard for institutions, notably government. But here Congress has risen markedly in voter regard in recent months, especially after passing welfare reform. Republican analysts think Clinton may have clinched his own reelection in signing the welfare bill, but sunk his Democratic colleagues' chances of again controlling Congress.

District-by-district assessments of congressional races show the GOP holding a majority. Generic voter preference polls put the Democrats ahead by three or four points; but since such counts usually overstate Democratic prospects by five to seven points, the GOP retains its edge. A Freedom Forum poll last week showed Clinton 13 points ahead, with 46 percent of voters still undecided. And the popular vote count understates the Republicans' electoral college edge.

The two parties are converging in ideas. They are at parity in public identification. And with the Reagan conservative agenda all but played out in the aftermath of the 1994 election and the rise of Newt Gingrich, this election lacks anything like the programmatic surge needed to give meaning to the term "landslide."

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Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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