MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — With all 435 House seats at stake this fall and voter anger with Washington running high, the 1994 election has the potential to produce major changes in Congress. President Clinton and the Democrats are hoping to keep their losses to a minimum, while Republicans dream of gaining control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
This is the first in an occasional series on selected House races around the country.
MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- If you ask Sandy Sands how things are going here for President Clinton, he pauses for a beat and replies, "Bad." Then, shaking his head soberly, he adds, "Real bad."
Mr. Sands, the Democratic candidate for Congress here, is not just blowing smoke. A poll of 5th District voters has just found Mr. Clinton's approval rating among white voters under 30 percent and among white male voters a rock-bottom 19 percent.
The contest to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Stephen L. Neal is not, of course, a referendum on the president. But Mr. Clinton's political weakness here -- and in many other districts across the South -- is heavy baggage for Democratic candidates such as Mr. Sands.
"Sandy would win it easy if it wasn't for them Clintons," a local Democratic supporter confides to a visitor. "But the way it is, it's going to be a close one."
In fact, the election probably would have been close even without the Clinton factor. Mr. Sands' Republican opponent, Richard Burr, is a 38-year-old Winston-Salem businessman who captured 46 percent of the vote two years ago against Mr. Neal, the incumbent, who has held the seat for 20 years.
But the president's weakness has inspired a rough consensus among strategists in both parties that the Republicans are likely to have a good midterm election Nov. 8 because, as Mr. Sands' campaign manager, Cormac Flynn, puts it, "The partisan environment has never been worse for a Democrat."
By most estimates, the context is hostile enough to Democrats to suggest Republicans gaining four or five seats in the Senate, where seven are needed for control, and somewhere between 15 and 30 in the House, where the Republicans would need a net gain of 40.
The 5th is the kind of district the Republicans need to win if they are to fulfill their hopes of a net gain of at least 20 to 25 seats -- the kind of added strength that, as the vote on the crime bill demonstrated so clearly, would confront Mr. Clinton with a political nightmare in the final two years of his term.
Relying heavily on his personal following, Mr. Neal hung on for 20 years, usually by narrow margins, while the electorate has trended Republican in presidential and Senate elections. George Bush won here by 16 percent in 1988, and two years ago exceeded his national performance to edge Mr. Clinton in the district by 1,300 votes.
The Democrats still enjoy a registration advantage here -- 61 percent to 33 percent Republican. That margin even increased a few points after the reapportionment based on the 1990 Census. But the creation of a heavily black new district took away black voters in Winston-Salem who were far more reliably Democratic than many of the whites left in the 5th.
As W. K. Woltz, an influential apparel manufacturer here, said the other day about a friend, "He's a Republican now, but they were all Democrats at one time."
Indeed, party labels don't have much meaning to many voters here. Asked by a tobacco farmer about the difference between Republican and Democratic positions on one issue, Mr. Burr said, "This is not about R's and D's. This is about sending more conservatives to Congress."
To which, the farmer replied: "You've got that right. That's the word -- conservative."
The stakes here have been raised by the recognition in both parties that this is a seat worth full support from the national level. Mr. Burr managed to win his 46 percent in 1992 while spending only $182,000 with a staff of three and a campaign office in his living room. This time he probably will spend $600,000, and he already has 10 full-time campaign workers operating from an office in Winston-Salem.
Mr. Sands is not barefoot, either. He has served eight years in the state Senate, from a district that covers about half the 14-county congressional district. And his record in Raleigh was strong enough that he won a six-candidate primary in the spring, with 43 percent of the vote, to 19 percent for his closest competitor.
The campaign is in its embryonic stage. Neither candidate has yet run television advertising. Instead, both are still caught up in retail campaigning, each having spent a day last week here in the hometown of Andy Griffith, touching bases with local supporters and being interviewed by the Mount Airy News.
Mr. Burr stopped at a tobacco auction, then drove into town for a cup of coffee at the Snappy Lunch (home of a pork-chop sandwich that would sink a destroyer), a visit to Flip Rees' men's store, a glass of lemonade at the drugstore, visits to local manufacturers of shirts and steel mesh and a meeting at Shoals general store a few miles out of town with a half-dozen tobacco farmers who were alarmed at what they see as a national campaign against smoking and the prospect of higher taxes on cigarettes to finance health care.
The Republican candidate, a one-time football star at Wake Forest and a salesman and business executive for the past 16 years, acknowledges that he is politically green. But the fact that he has no political credentials -- and an open, easy manner with voters -- may be his greatest asset.
Because of his history in Raleigh, Mr. Sands starts with an obvious base of Democratic activists here. He met with about 15 of them at City Hall, ate lunch with 20 more at a Quincy's restaurant, dropped in on several others and made the obligatory visits to the newspaper and three local industries.
At this point, there is nothing approaching serious political debate. Both candidates are fully committed to protecting the tobacco industry, the district's largest employer, and the textiles that are still so economically important here. They have been doing the usual bickering about the other's campaign funding -- Mr. Burr complaining about Mr. Sands' support from political action committees, Mr. Sands countering by citing Mr. Burr's support from fat cats able to contribute $1,000 each.
They are both cautious and vague about the issues in Washington right now. "I have yet to see a health plan I like," Mr. Sands says. "I don't know the answer, and I don't think anybody else does, either."
All this is likely to change dramatically as the campaign turns more serious -- meaning more reliant on television advertising -- after Labor Day.
One thing that is plain now is that Bill Clinton is more help to Republican Richard Burr than to Democrat Sandy Sands. If that proves to be the case in many districts, the White House is facing a grim result Nov. 8.