SACRAMENTO, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Nearly seven weeks ago in this space, I postulated that the midterm elections were "still close to call." Since then, most political attention has been monopolized by the debate of a possible second war with Iraq, the forced retirement of scandal-ridden Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and now, the tragic deaths of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., his wife and daughter.
Rarely has there been a year where campaigns made so little difference. Virtually the only news affecting this election has come from outside the normal political arena.
At the traditional Labor Day campaign "kickoff" mark, four Democratic seats (Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota) and four Republican seats (Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire and Texas) in the United States Senate were considered to be in play. Those seats are still up for grabs.
Torricelli was pushed out of the New Jersey Senate race by an avalanche of bad publicity after the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" him for taking gifts --- and horrendous polling numbers (he had fallen to just 34 percent in public polls just before quitting). The Democrats replaced Torricelli with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The latest independent polls had Lautenberg ahead, but only at about 52 percent. He could easily be vulnerable to a late surge by Republican nominee Doug Forrester.
In a sad but ironic note, Wellstone had moved out to a seven-point lead in the last Minneapolis Star Tribune poll published a week before his death, but he was still below 50 percent -- a danger sign for any incumbent with only one major opponent. Likely Democratic nominee Walter Mondale last carried Minnesota in his 1984 presidential campaign by just 3,761 votes out of more than 2 million ballots. This race will remain in the toss-up column.
Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan went to the Senate also under heartbreaking circumstances when her husband died in a plane crash less than a month before the election and she was appointed to the seat her late husband won. A poll done for the Republican Senatorial Committee a year ago showed Carnahan narrowly ahead. Not much has changed: a KOMU-TV poll showed GOP challenger Jim Talent with 47 percent to 46 percent for Carnahan. Turnout in St. Louis will decide this race.
South Dakota has perhaps the nation's most hotly contested Senate race. Democrat Tim Johnson won six years ago in the face of a local Bob Dole victory. The Republican nominee, Rep. John Thune, was equally strong because all House candidates run statewide in South Dakota's one House district. Since July 4, every independent poll has shown this race to be within any survey's 4 percent margin of error. The mid-October Zogby poll had Thune ahead by 2 points with 10 percent undecided. Johnson's best hope in this usually Republican state is a protest vote by farmers against the Bush administration's drought policies.
The Republican swing Senate seats are still close. In Arkansas, Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson is even with Mark Pryor, the son of former Sen. David Pryor. But Hutchinson has not been above 50 percent in any independent poll all year. Pryor remains a slight favorite here.
In Colorado, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is locked at about 40 percent with Tom Strickland, the Democrat he defeated by 51 percent to 46 percent in 1996. Allard has not been over 50 percent in even his own polls. It may well be that Allard can only be saved by the GOP tilt of his state and the popularity of President Bush.
In New Hampshire's Senate race, John Sununu Jr., (son of the first Bush White House chief of staff), is deadlocked with Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. One recent non-partisan poll had Sununu ahead by 2 points, another had Shaheen ahead by 5. This race will be decided by the 44 percent of Granite State voters who called themselves independents in the 2000 exit polls.
Texas Republicans are confident that Attorney General John Cornyn can hold onto Phil Gramm's Senate seat in the president's home state. Independent polls put Cornyn safely ahead of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who would be the South's first black senator since the Civil War era. But Democrats insist that their surveys are picking up a record surge in minority turnout that will help Kirk spring the upset.
In gubernatorial races, no candidate has either rallied or fallen disastrously in any of the big states. In Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Democratic candidates had solid leads for open Statehouses on Sept. 1. They all still do: Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, Jennifer Granholm in Michigan and Jim Doyle in Wisconsin. GOP Gov. Robert Taft in Ohio still looks safe as do Republican incumbents in the smaller states of Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming. Republicans still have excellent chances to oust Democratic incumbents in staunchly conservative Southern states like Alabama and South Carolina.
In the two of the three banner Sun Belt provinces -- California and Florida -- each party has an incumbent struggling to hang on. California Gov. Gray Davis has not yet put away GOP businessman Bill Simon, while the president's brother Jeb is still below 50 percent against Democratic newcomer Bill McBride. In Texas, President Bush's successor Rick Perry will win unless there is a massive and unprecedented Hispanic turnout for Democratic businessman Tony Sanchez.
Seven weeks ago, there were more than a dozen gubernatorial races that could go either way. That's still true today.
As for the House of Representatives, I wrote that, "There are only (at most) 75 of 435 House races are in serious contention." Recent articles in both The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have reduced this estimate to just about 40 contested House seats. The Sept. 2-4 Gallup national House vote poll had the Democrats ahead by three points. The Oct. 21-22 Gallup poll showed exactly zero change: The Democrats were still ahead by a statistically insignificant 3 points. Democrats were still waiting on a late break on the economy to tip the House their way.
Not all that much has happened in standard campaign terms. We are still waiting for a breakout by either party. The odds still favor Democrats in gubernatorial races, the Republicans by an ever-so-slight margin in the battle for the House and the Senate still too close to call. In early September, I wrote, "More changes undoubtedly lie ahead." The amazing thing is that so little has changed over the last two months with just a few days to go.
In "The Making of the President" (1968), Theodore White titled his chapter on the October phase of that campaign, "All emotions spent." That description could fit the last two months of Campaign 2002 as well.
(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California Democrats).