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Hoyer, a power on Hill, looks vulnerable


HOUSTON -- By most measures, Larry Hogan Jr. does not look like a political giant-killer. But he is expected to run well against one of the most powerful men in Congress, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

And if the record of 1992 is any guide, the 5th District Republican congressional candidate could make a stunning contribution to the "Clean House" campaign theme sounded so often here during the Republican National Convention.

Not since 1946 have so many incumbent congressmen been involuntarily retired in primaries. Sixteen congressmen and one senator, including once-untouchable veterans, have seen their careers come to a shocking close. The carnage is expected to continue in November's general election.

On the eve of this convention, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan was defeated by a man who ran a bicycle shop, by a man whom he outspent 30-to-1.

For Mr. Vander Jagt, whose responsibilities include the nurturing of new Republican electoral talent such as Larry Hogan Jr., the defeat was even more embarrassing.

The pain may have been eased by recognition that his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. of Arkansas, also lost in his primary.

All of which gives heart to Mr. Hogan, who misses no opportunity to point out the power held by his opponent. Congressman Hoyer is chairman of the Democratic House Caucus and fourth highest ranking member of his party's House leadership.

For himself, Mr. Hogan proudly offers no elected political experience, relatively little campaign money and no friends in high places. As a young man, he did work in the campaigns of his father, former Maryland Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan, who served in the House from from 1968 to 1974.

Now he wants to follow in his father's footsteps. A 36-year-old Realtor who lives in Upper Marlboro, Prince George's County, Mr. Hogan thinks voter hostility toward incumbent officeholders will turn most of Mr. Hoyer's assets into liabilities.

"The more visible an incumbent, the more powerful a position they have, the more vulnerable they are. They are seen as part of the institution people are upset about," he says.

People in LaPlata, Leonardtown and St. Mary's City, he says, wonder if Mr. Hoyer understands their feelings.

Mr. Hogan is in Houston this week helping to skewer Congressional Democrats for every conceivable national problem. Former President Ronald Reagan made the house-cleaning argument Monday night.

Republicans must shift the voters' focus to "the entrenched interests along the Potomac, the gavel-wielding chairmen, the taxers and takers and congressional rule-makers."

Mr. Hoyer, for example.

In a brief, taped appearance before the convention yesterday morning, Mr. Hogan said Mr. Hoyer had helped tax America into "economic slavery." It was Mr. Hoyer specifically, as chairman of the House Caucus, who coddled the infamous House check bouncers, he says.

"How did 355 congressmen bounce 24,000 checks totaling $11 million? Where were you?" he asks his opponent.

If the Democrats could not properly manage their bank, he asked, how can they handle the federal budget?

Mr. Hoyer observes that he personally bounced only three small checks. Since there is not much of an issue for his opponent in that, his opponent is trying to broaden his responsibility. He rejects that contention.

But he does not dispute the validity of the management question.

"What happened should not have happened. We should have been more diligent," he says.

Mr. Hogan's challenge is aided also by several other factors:

The new 5th district, drawn as part of the state's new election district map, is more conservative and more Republican than the one that has elected Mr. Hoyer every two years since 1981 when he won a special election.

The old district, for example, gave Democratic presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale victory by better than 60 percent. The new districts voted for Presidents Reagan and Bush by about the same margin.

Mr. Hoyer also is running in a district where a sizable proportion of the voters don't know him.

What the voters see is the archetype of an endangered political species: an incumbent. From voting record to personal appearance, Mr. Hogan says, Congressman Hoyer is saddled with attributes that, in 1992, are liabilities.

"People see this powerful guy coming down from Prince George's County and Washington with his expensive suit and his tie bar, his blown-dry hair. They say, 'He's too slick.' If you were going to cast a congressman for a movie, you'd hire Steny Hoyer."

In a time of dislike of incumbents, even actions which voters would normally embrace can seem questionable, Mr. Hogan says.

"Steny's bringing home so much bacon we're drowning in the fat," he says. Hoyer patronage, designed to aggrandize him among his House colleagues, extends beyond his home district.

"With him, it's always Christmas morning, and he's Steny Claus," he says.

Mr. Hoyer says the subtle name-calling is empty criticism. He says his job is to safeguard the jobs and economic activity generated by military installations such as the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The question is: Are the projects valuable or just make-work?

"What projects have I won for the district would he oppose?" Mr. Hoyer wonders. He says Mr. Hogan never came to him with a complaint before he entered the race -- and, in fact, made contributions to his campaign in 1986, 1987, twice in 1988, 1990 and 1991.

Mr. Hogan says his opponent does remain popular with one constituent group: political action committees. He says he has been unable to get PACs to contribute to him, the challenger, because they fear the powerful incumbent. Mr. Hoyer has raised about a $1 million, around $600,000 from PACs.

Mr. Hogan says his opponent is spending in excess of campaign ceilings he agreed to abide by. Mr. Hoyer says he voted for the lower spending ceilings but President Bush vetoed them. When the limits become law, he says, he will live within them.

The challenger tries to offset the incumbent's enduring financial advantage by standing along district highways with "Hogan For Congress" signs almost every day.

When the incumbent starts running campaign commercials, Mr. Hogan says: "I want people to think: 'Here comes the special interest groups trying to buy my vote.' "

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