With most of Tuesday's congressional elections holding about as much suspense as the Yankees' recent World Series sweep, the Senate race in New York, a tight faceoff between veteran legislators with close ties to the financial industry, has moved into a national spotlight.

Alfonse M. D'Amato, the Republican incumbent and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is embroiled in a close and nasty contest with Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn and member of the House Banking Committee.

Rep. Schumer, who has been repeating a refrain that the three-term senator has been in office "too long," pulled ahead in some polls, but Sen. D'Amato has a knack for late comebacks.

"The issue of the chairmanship is clearly-by several orders of magnitude-the most important of the races," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association.

Another endangered Senate Banking Republican is Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, who is facing John Edwards, a Raleigh-based trial lawyer.

On the Democratic side, Barbara Boxer of California is in a close race with State Treasurer Matt Fong, and many pundits are already counting Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois as a loser to Peter Fitzgerald, a director of Harris Bank in Chicago.

In the House, Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach of Iowa and Rep. John J. LaFalce of New York, the panel's ranking Democrat, are expected to win by safe margins. The closest race among important players on the 61-member committee is Rep. Richard H. Baker, R-La.

The attention-grabbing New York Senate race was considered a dead heat about two weeks ago, with political experts giving the wily Sen. D'Amato a slight edge. But President Clinton and his wife have headlined several Schumer fund-raisers, and Sen. D'Amato touched off a firestorm for calling his opponent a "putzhead" in a private meeting with Jewish leaders.

Sen. D'Amato at first denied using the Yiddish-derived slur, which played into the "too many lies, too long" ad theme of his opponent. The senator, for his part, has harped on his opponent's missing House votes while campaigning this year.

"The people of America understand, if you don't go to work, you don't get a promotion," Sen. D'Amato said in an Oct. 25 televised debate.

The Schumer camp has accused Sen. D'Amato of distorting the congressman's record and has repeatedly reminded voters that Sen. D'Amato said his 1992 campaign would be his last.

"It looks to me like Schumer is gaining some significant momentum," said John Zogby, president of the Zogby International polling firm. But he noted that Sen. D'Amato had trailed by eight points with a week to go in 1992 and still won. Rep. Schumer led 42.4% to 37% in a Zogby poll late last week, but most observers are still seeing a tossup.

The Democrat has claimed credit for rallying New York's House delegation behind financial services reform legislation. Sen. D'Amato, he said, failed to get the companion bill through the Senate.

"I missed a lot of votes in the Banking Committee, and yet I was more effective than he was," Rep. Schumer said.

Both have fed at the fund-raising trough of the financial services industry, which is trying to hedge its bets. Citigroup co-chairman Sanford I. Weill hosted a breakfast for Sen. D'Amato in early October; other financial dignitaries have been doing the same for his opponent. "Whoever is the meanest guy with the most money wins," a veteran banking lawyer said.

If Sen. D'Amato loses, Senate Banking could turn more partisan. The New Yorker has a reputation for working well with the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, and cutting deals behind the scenes to promote quick, harmonious committee votes.

Next in line for chairman is Sen. Phil Gramm, a combative Texan who almost single-handedly foiled Sen. D'Amato's financial reform bill. He is considered highly ideological on the Community Reinvestment Act and other issues, making committee politics harder to predict if he takes over.

"For the last several years, that committee has been delicately balanced and tended to work in a bipartisan fashion," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "It is possible you could see a more divided committee," particularly on consumer and CRA issues.

Emblematic of his pragmatic leanings, Sen. D'Amato last summer sided with Democrats against a controversial amendment in order to preserve credit union legislation. He cast the deciding vote against an amendment backed by all his fellow Republicans on the committee that would have exempted small banks from the Community Reinvestment Act.

Sen. Gramm has denied rumors that he stalled financial reform so he could stake claim to it next year if Sen. D'Amato is defeated.

"I am not going to speculate on Sen. D'Amato losing," he said as Congress adjourned. "That is unthinkable to me. I think Sen. D'Amato will win. I think he is going to have his biggest victory ever."

Other committee faces could change.

Sen. Faircloth is seen as dead-even with the 45-year-old Mr. Edwards. Playing to North Carolina's tobacco industry, the incumbent has tried to paint Mr. Edwards as a Clinton liberal who supported higher cigarette taxes. A 70-year-old hog farmer and businessman, Sen. Faircloth has outspent Mr. Edwards but faces a younger, more telegenic opponent.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, actor Charlton Heston, and other high-profile Republicans have stumped for Mr. Faircloth, a plane-crash survivor who is campaigning by car because he fears flying.

The Faircloth camp was defensive last week about a poll that showed Mr. Edwards six points ahead, focusing instead on a Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. survey Thursday that showed Sen. Faircloth with a 44% to 43% edge.

"Our anticipation is it will be a very close race but we will win by two to four points," a Faircloth aide said. The campaign has spent about $600,000 in the past two months on phone calls and mailings to get Republican voters to the polls, the aide said.

In Illinois, Sen. Moseley-Braun trailed by eight points in a Copley Newspapers poll late last week, damaged by controversies over campaign finance and her contacts with a Nigerian dictator.

A spokesman for her conservative Republican opponent, Mr. Fitzgerald, said he would not seek a Senate Banking Committee seat if elected because he is a shareholder in Bank of Montreal Corp., the parent of Harris Bankcorp, which acquired his family's Suburban Bancorp in 1994.

As an Illinois state senator since 1992, Mr. Fitzgerald has recused himself from banking issues, the spokesman said.

Sen. Boxer seems to be rallying in her California race against Mr. Fong, who had led polls taken in September. After a flurry of negative TV ads and news that her Republican challenger gave money to a group that opposes abortion and gay rights, the latest surveys have her ahead by as many as nine points.

Rep. Leach of Davenport, Iowa, appears poised again to stave off Bob Rush, a Democratic lawyer from Cedar Rapids. The moderate Rep. Leach barely beat Mr. Rush in 1996 but is expected to win handily this year because of a strong Republican ticket in the state, a weaker Democratic Party, and his high profile on banking issues and foreign affairs.

Rep. LaFalce, a 12-term Democrat from the Buffalo area, got a scare this time from wealthy Republican businessman Christopher C. Collins, but industry lobbyists expect him to retain his seat. The challenger criticized Rep. LaFalce for taking too many foreign trips that were funded by taxpayers and special interests, and for failing to promote economic development.

The incumbent said the trips were necessary to keep abreast of world affairs and bragged in a recent debate about investments he has brought to the area-including a commitment last week by Fannie Mae to buy $2 billion of affordable housing loans in western New York in the next five years.

Rep. LaFalce also launched an ad campaign hammering Mr. Collins for not living in the district. Mr. Collins' heavy spending "caused John to have to hustle," an aide said. "John's ads were far more negative than he wanted them to be."

Industry lobbyists and others predict Rep. Baker will win narrowly over Marjorie McKeithen, a trial lawyer from a family with a long history in Louisiana politics. She has criticized him as serving the interests of big banks, noting that he tried to impose tougher business lending limits on credit unions. Rep. Baker has responded that his Democratic opponent is beholden to the trial lawyers' lobby.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.