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GOP likely to retain edge in the House

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As Republicans struggle to retain the narrowest House majority held by any party in the last half-century, they may benefit in this year's midterm elections from something of a political security blanket: Incumbents around the United States are savoring high popularity ratings, and the sturdy economy and dearth of contentious issues have left many challengers with no foothold.

Although the two parties are also wrangling over 36 governorships and a third of the Senate, the early signs point to one of the most serene midterm election seasons in years.Democrats concede that they have no chance to regain the majority in the Senate this year, while Republicans do not count on reaching the 60-vote margin needed to cut off a filibuster. Democrats also expect that Republicans will hold on to most of the big-state governorships. That leaves most of the attention on about 75 of the most competitive House seats.

Most political analysts agree that Republicans are well positioned to maintain their House margin, but their 11-seat edge is so slim that no one can speak with confidence about the outcome. Even if the House does not change hands, the result will be important in determining the extent of President Clinton's negotiating room over the next two years.

The quiet campaign environment may be deceptive. The wild card looming over the electorate is how - or even whether - the White House sex scandal will play. It could bring out angry Republicans in November. Or if the House Republicans conduct impeachment hearings, that could embolden Democrats who could view it as excessively partisan. Another possibility is that the issue will not sway voters one way or another.

Though incumbents are mindful of the possibility of a dramatic event that could alter the political forces, they are enjoying what many of them said in interviews is the most stress-free pre-election period in years.