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Election Outcome Could Have Significant Impact on Bush Agenda - 2002-11-01

Voters in the United States go to the polls on Tuesday in elections that will determine which political party controls the Senate and House of Representatives. The outcome will have a significant impact on President Bush's ability to get his way in the U.S. Congress.

The political stakes are enormous. Opposition Democrats hope to maintain a check on President Bush by holding or expanding their one seat margin of control in the 100 member Senate.

Republicans, who already control the House, are targeting a handful of vulnerable Senate Democrats in a bid to gain control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Republican control of both the House and Senate would give President Bush a major political boost as he prepares for his re-election bid in 2004 and would give his party control of the legislative agenda.

Midterm congressional elections, which get their name from the fact that they come halfway through a four-year presidential term, are usually dominated by economic and local issues as well as local personalities.

But foreign policy has had more of an impact in this year's election than in most midterm congressional campaigns.

"You've got this force of the economy, concerns about the economy and jobs and where the country is going domestically is pulling the election towards Democrats, while concern about foreign policy and terrorism, the impending potential attack on Iraq pulling in the other direction," says Charles Cook, a Washington-based political analyst. "So you have two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions and right now it is a draw. So it is a pretty level playing field."

All 435 U.S. House seats are at stake in Tuesday's election, though only about 20 races are truly competitive. Democrats would have to win most of the close races in order to have a chance at recapturing control of the House for the first time since 1994.

But this year's major battle is for control of the Senate, where members serve for six year terms. 34 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested this year, but the two major parties are primarily focused on seven or eight close races, any one of which could determine which party winds up controlling the Senate.

The president's party historically loses congressional seats in midterm elections. President Bush is trying to counter that trend by visiting several states in the final days before the election campaigning for Republican candidates.

Most analysts believe the election results will confirm what most Americans already know, that the country is sharply split along partisan lines and may remain so for some time to come.

"We all know that Tuesday's election is very unlikely to alter the structure of American politics," said Thomas Mann, who monitors the U.S. political scene at the Brookings Institution here in Washington. "As many analysts have pointed out in recent years, we are a 50-50 nation, the narrowest of margins between the parties at every level of elective office in generations. And that is simply unlikely to change next Tuesday."

In addition to congressional races, which come every two years, 36 states will elect governors on November 5 and 40 states will offer ballot questions on a wide range of topics including animal rights, bilingual education and drug policy.