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Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2000 / 3 Tishrei, 5761

George Will

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Senate Canvas -- MINNEAPOLIS | To understand why finding a national trend in this year's Senate races is like discerning a narrative in a Jackson Pollock painting, start here. Once a hotbed of cool, earnest Scandinavian welfare state liberalism, Minnesota, which has not voted Republican in a presidential race since 1972 (when it gave Richard Nixon his narrowest percentage margin over George McGovern), has a former professional wrestler (Jesse Ventura) as governor, a senator (Democrat Paul Wellstone) who may be the Senate's most liberal member and another senator (Republican Rod Grams, now seeking a second term) who is among its most conservative.

Minnesota illustrates a paradoxical national phenomenon--the volatility of the contented. Only a state without a coherent notion of how the nation could be improved would paint such an incoherent political self-portrait.

Unlike Republicans almost everywhere else who are stressing traditional Democratic issues such as education, Social Security and more Medicare entitlements, Rod Grams echoes George W. Bush's call for a large tax cut. Grams insists this is salient because Minnesota is the "second or third" highest taxed state. (According to the Tax Foundation, Minnesota ranks 10th in state and local taxes as a percentage of income, and 13th in total taxes as a percentage of income.) Grams may have helped drain the appeal of tax cuts: He strongly supported the $500-per-child tax credit, and partly because of that, a household with the median family income ($49,940) now pays a smaller percentage of its earnings in federal income taxes than at any time since 1955.

Grams's 22-year-old son, who last year was arrested on drug charges, was arrested recently in a New Mexico motel with a 15-year-old runaway girl and charged with multiple felonies. Grams's wealthy Democratic opponent, Mark Dayton, lost races for senator (1982) and governor (1998), and now finances bus trips for the elderly to shop for medicines in Canada. Polls show Grams trailing Dayton by five or more points.

The Republicans have a four-seat edge in the Senate. If Sen. Joe Lieberman remains on Connecticut's ballot and Al Gore wins, Connecticut's Republican governor will pick Lieberman's successor, so Democrats would need to gain five seats to enable Vice President Lieberman to break a tie for Senate control.

Republicans currently have only one very promising chance of capturing a Democratic seat (Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb's). In Nevada, in what was supposed to be a second easy pickup, Republican former representative John Ensign, who came within 428 votes of winning a Senate seat two years ago, is ahead in the contest for the seat of retiring Democrat Richard Bryan, but Ensign is under 50 percent. Republican incumbents Slade Gorton of Washington, John Ashcroft of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana also are in close contests.

In New York, Republican Rick Lazio, who is trailing Hillary Clinton, has wasted more than a week doing what losing candidates often do--talking about the politics of politics. His achievement? Negotiating with Mrs. Clinton an unenforceable ban on something--soft money--that not one in 10,000 New Yorkers cares about. In Florida, Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, trailing in his effort to hold the seat of retiring Sen. Connie Mack, is calling for a ban on soft money.

In New Jersey, the Democrats' self-financing candidate, centimillionaire Jon Corzine, is spending more per week on television (at least $1.5 million) than the Republican candidate, Rep. Bob Franks, has raised since Labor Day. However, Corzine, whose spending has become the issue, is contributing to the broadcast clutter in the Philadelphia market. (Also adding to the clutter: presidential spending, Delaware Senate and gubernatorial races, Pennsylvania senate, gubernatorial and congressional races.) This makes it extra expensive for the Pennsylvania Democrats' Senate nominee, Rep. Ron Klink, to get on the air there. He is strapped for cash, partly because most Democratic contributors are liberals who detest two of his positions that could help him against the incumbent Republican, Rick Santorum. Klink is antiabortion, as was Pennsylvania's most popular recent politician, the late governor Bob Casey, and Klink opposes gun control (Pennsylvania has one of the nation's highest ratio of hunters per capita).

Delaware Republican Sen. Bill Roth, seeking a sixth term, is highly approved. He also is 79, and one of his assets, his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, will be taken from him in two years because of the Republican policy of term-limiting committee chairmen. His opponent, Gov. Tom Carper, also is popular, and is 26 years younger.

There is scant evidence of either presidential candidate's having coattails this year. The results of the Senate races will paint a political canvas of the abstract expressionist school.

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