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Status Quo - or Surprises?

The nation appears headed for an election in which voters opt for the status quo, returning incumbents to office. While the party out of the White House often wins big in the sixth year of a presidency, Republicans are probably not on the verge of such gains, especially in the House.

Three keys to the outcome: turnout, turnout, and turnout. Here the Republicans have an edge. Polls consistently indicate their supporters, upset over President Clinton's behavior and his blocking of the GOP agenda, are more likely to vote. The lower the overall turnout, the worse for Democrats.

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That's why the White House and congressional Democrats are battling to motivate such core constituencies as minorities and "waitress moms." The president and first lady have made dozens of radio ads aimed at black voters; the Congressional Black Caucus and labor unions are working hard to get out the vote. With both sides trying to energize their supporters, this "ground campaign" may prove more pivotal than the "air war" of TV ads.

Republicans look set to capture two or three Democratic Senate seats and between eight and 15 in the House. Anything less than that will be interpreted as a boost for the Democrats; more will be seen as a significant shift in the GOP's favor. Ten seats tacked on to Republicans' razor-thin House majority would give the leadership a lot more room to maneuver.

In the Senate, Republicans appear likely to pick up Carol Moseley-Braun's Illinois seat and that of retiring Ohio Democrat John Glenn. But they will probably give up the Indiana seat Dan Coats is vacating. Republicans Al D'Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina are in serious trouble. But so are Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Harry Reid of Nevada, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina. The race for the open seat in Kentucky is too close to call, but Democrats look likely to hold onto the one in Arkansas. Washington State Democrat Patty Murray is leading, but observers have historically underestimated Republican challenger Linda Smith.

In the House, 94 incumbents are unopposed, 239 incumbents are considered safe, and another 44 clearly lead. So the outcome boils down to the results of 58 races, of which 34 are open seats likely to split evenly between the parties.

In governorships, the Republicans are poised to hold or add a bit to their overwhelming majority, perhaps trading California for Florida.

Given the uncertainty of turnout and the predominance of local issues in this year's races, one thing is certain: Some serious surprises are in the offing. That's why all registered voters should do their duty as citizens and go to the polls Nov. 3.

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