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Contest for Capitol Hill Grabs Political Spotlight

GOP quietly makes gains that may keep it in majority

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With less than two weeks to go before election day, Republicans still appear likely to keep control of the United States Senate. And while the future of the House of Representatives is less certain, the GOP appears to have reversed its slide and may be on the comeback trail to keep its House majority.

The race for Congress is turning out to be one of the closest in modern history. It is starting to dominate attention in the waning days of Campaign '96, in the absence of any dramatic moves in the presidential contest. "The GOP numbers have firmed up in the last week or 10 days," says Charles Cook, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.

Analysts agree voter turnout will be a crucial factor in determining the victors.

In the Senate, 12 key races currently rated by observers as close or toss-ups - six Republican seats and six Democratic - will decide the issue.

Democrats could lose open seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Jersey, as well as those of incumbents Paul Wellstone in Minnesota and John Kerry in Massachusetts. Republicans in the too-close-to-call category are Sens. Larry Pressler in South Dakota and Bob Smith in New Hampshire, and the party could lose open seats in Colorado, Kansas, Maine, and Oregon.

The electoral math, however, continues to favor the Republicans, who currently have a 53-to-47 majority. To regain Senate control, Democrats must make a net gain of three seats. So they have to hang on to all their vulnerable slots, plus take half of the vulnerable GOP seats. But Republican Jeff Sessions looks set to defeat Democrat Roger Bedford in Alabama, taking away a Democratic slot. That means the Democrats would have to win eight of the 10 tossups to control the upper house - something few observers expect.

"I don't see how we'd lose the Senate," says GOP political consultant Ron Kaufman. "Too many Democrat seats and not enough Republican seats are in play."

US House is still in play

Opinion is more divided about the House, where Republicans hold a 235-to-198 majority. (One seat is held by an independent and one is vacant.) The outlook is so volatile that the GOP could actually pick up a few seats. Democrats need to win 19 seats to take the Speaker's gavel.

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