BUDGET VOTE SHAPES HOUSE RACE IN PA. 'I made myself an easy target,' Democrat says


The 1994 election has the potential to produce major changes in Congress. While President Clinton and the Democrats hope to keep their losses to a minimum, Republicans dream of seizing control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

This is one in an occasional series on selected House races around the country.

NORRISTOWN, Pa. -- You will remember Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. She had her 15 minutes of fame -- or infamy, depending on your point of view -- when she cast the 218th vote last year to save President Clinton's budget in the House of Representatives after having declared herself against it.

"I made myself an easy target," she says now in remarkably cheerful tones. "I knew at the time it might cost me my seat."

That proposition is being tested here in Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District in another of the key races that will determine just how many House seats the Republicans will gain Nov. 8 and just how much of a problem Mr. Clinton will face in dealing with the Congress over the next two years.

This is the kind of race -- against a freshman Democrat in an ordinarily overwhelmingly Republican district -- that the Republicans should win if they are to make good on their hopes of gaining 25 or more seats rather than a minimal 15 to 18.

Although Republicans trumpet a poll showing Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky trailing by more than 10 points, the outcome here is far from clear at this early stage of the midterm campaign and will depend on a whole series of variables.

One variable is money

One is money, and the Democratic incumbent is likely to outspend her Republican opponent, County Commissioner Jon

D. Fox, by 2-to-1 or 3-to-1. Another is the degree to which voters see her as irrevocably connected to Mr. Clinton. A third is the willingness of voters to accept a vote they might not like if they see offsetting factors in Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky's record and energetic style.

More than anything else, however, the outcome of this election depends on which candidate defines the nature of the campaign.

Mr. Fox says the issue is simply whether voters can trust their representative in Congress. "We see a clear difference between the incumbent and the challenger on trust," he says. "It's a character issue, and I've got the trust of the district."

The Republican also is determined to reinforce the picture of his opponent as a Clinton ally at a time when the president is far less popular than he was when he carried the district by 11,000 votes two years ago. "If they don't know it," he says, "it's my job to make sure they know it."

Predictably, Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky -- the "Mezvinsky" is her husband, Ed, a one-time congressman from Iowa -- is trying to frame the decision as simply a choice between two candidates with different histories and agendas. Asked if there is an element of referendum on President Clinton in the campaign, she replies, "I think the referendum is going to be between the two of us."

The 52-year-old Democrat presents herself, accurately, as an activist who takes the lead on issues as diverse as research on breast cancer and the need to examine federal entitlement programs, a need she says dictated her original intention to vote against the Clinton budget last year. And she depicts Mr. Fox as, although she doesn't use the term, an old-fashioned political hack simply interested in the next step up the ladder.

"She painted me as a professional politician, as a career &L; politician," says Mr. Fox, who seems at least mildly offended by the notion. "I like to think of it as being a public servant."

Mr. Fox, 47, a one-time prosecutor and state legislator who is now one of three full-time Montgomery County commissioners, doesn't see why experience should be a handicap. If you need heart surgery, he says, you don't want a cardiologist with no experience.

The district, the wealthiest in the state, is hard ground for any Democrat. Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky defeated Mr. Fox by only 1,300 votes last time to become the first of her party to hold the seat since 1916.

There are more people here who are in the top income brackets, and thus are paying higher taxes from the Clinton plan she saved, than benefit from the earned income tax credit.

But television advertising can redefine the politics almost anywhere, and the Democratic incumbent already has raised $1 million-plus and should add substantially to that on Tuesday, when Hillary Rodham Clinton and a host of activist women all-stars will appear for her at a Philadelphia fund-raiser.

A full-bore campaign on Philadelphia stations costs $250,000 a week, even though 70 percent of the viewers live in New Jersey, Delaware or other Pennsylvania districts. Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky probably can afford a full four weeks of that kind of exposure.

By contrast, Mr. Fox may have a hard time matching the $700,000-plus he spent two years ago, particularly since he must compete for money with statewide Republican candidates.

Budget vote recalled

But Republicans are persuaded Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky is vulnerable because of that budget vote. "People here feel like there was a mistake made two years ago, and they don't want to repeat that mistake," say Fox campaign manager Jan Friis. "The issue is whether people can trust her."

When she cast that critical vote, after telling the White House she would only do it if she was the 218th that would make the difference, she extracted a promise that the president would come to her district to discuss the entitlement issue in a public forum. Mr. Clinton kept the promise but focused largely on health care at the meeting.

In any case, Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky now sees the vote as essentially just part of the context -- "I think people have made up their minds on the vote," she says -- while the imperative is to move on to other issues, including but not limited to entitlements. The contest, says campaign manager Amy Walter, between two extremely well-known entities."

Mr. Fox says his opponent is "more liberal than the district" and suffering from what he sees as "a duality" of purposes -- a conflict between her responsibilities to her party and those to her district.

But Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky sees nothing out of touch in, for instance, her role in trying to focus serious congressional attention on the entitlement programs, the issue that led to that notorious vote last year.

In any case, Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky, a writer and longtime TV reporter, seems remarkably philosophical about the possibility she might lose the seat she gained only two years ago. Women in politics, she says, are usually "less possessed by needing to be in office" than is the case with men.

"It's less all-consuming," she says, "we're not defined by it."

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