The Fighting Will Be Close, the Spectacle Exciting, the Outcome Meaningless; ANALYSIS US MID-TERM ELECTIONS ; Today America Goes to the Polls, but the Truth Is That Whoever Wins There Is a Cultural Deadlock at the Heart of the Nation's Politics

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THEY WILL be splendidly exciting, among the most exciting US mid- term elections in recent history. And yet they will settle nothing. That, briefly put, is the paradox at the heart of today's vote, as America chooses an entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate and almost three quarters of its state governors.

This will be an election night with as many twists, turns and sub- plots as the best British equivalent, thanks to the vagaries of the Anglo-Saxon first-past-the-post voting system. It will also be a very long night, stretching at the very least into Wednesday morning and conceivably into next month, if a run-off Senate vote is required in Louisiana.

That possibility stems from the Bayou State's idiosyncratic aversion to primaries. Thus the sitting Democrat, Mary Landrieu, must win more than 50 per cent of the vote today against no less than three Republican opponents. If she does not, then control of the Senate - conceivably of Capitol Hill in its entirety - could hinge on a run-off on 7 December. In which case, for Florida 2000, read Louisiana 2002. It may not come to that, but the very fact that it could shows how finely poised the battle is. In short, welcome to the politics of deadlock.

American politics has reached a virtually unprecedented stalemate. For almost 40 years Democrats held sway, for a quarter of a century after that the Republicans, only for the Democrats, under Bill Clinton, to restore parity. As in many other leading democracies, differences here between the party of the "right" and the party of the "left" have become blurred as each has stolen the other's most appealing policies.

This time around, however, the Democrats are more culpable. They basically went along with Mr Bush's Iraq policy, despite widespread unease throughout the country. With a few honourable exceptions (notably the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota who died in an air crash 10 days ago in the midst of a desperately close race), most did not dare to oppose the President; not because they agreed with him, but from fear of being branded "unpatriotic" and "soft on terrorism" by their opponents.

Despite corporate scandals that have lapped the walls of the White House, and the risk of renewed recession, the Democrats have also failed to cash in on economic issues. If these have been elections without a theme, it is because the Democrats have failed to provide one.

Further shrinking the battlefield, and thus reducing the potential for change, is a system that permits endless redrawing of congressional districts - invariably in favour of incumbents. That, and the huge fund-raising advantage an incumbent enjoys, means that the number of genuinely competitive House races is no more than 15 or 20 out of 435. Of the 52 districts in California, the most populous state, just one is seriously in doubt.

Thus President Bush's Republicans could defy the tradition that the party holding the White House is punished in mid-terms. In the House, indeed, they are favoured to pick up the odd seat. Paradoxically, the real excitement surrounds the Senate, which was conceived as the more reflective and stable chamber. Of the 34 seats being contested this time, at least six, perhaps as many as 10, are toss-ups.

Underlying everything is the cultural deadlock at the core of US politics. The confrontation pits Reaganite and religious conservatism against the liberal, Sixties-coloured values of Bill Clinton. The stalemate was most clearly illustrated in Florida two years ago, where George Bush won (if indeed he did win) by 0.01 per cent of the vote. But it pervades the entire system.

The Senate is to all intents and purposes an even split, and the House is little different. True, Republicans hold a 27-21 majority of the 50 state governorships (two are held by independents). But by the time all the votes are counted in today's 36 gubernatorial races, the Democrats could have drawn level or even pulled ahead. …