Democratic uneasiness reaches near-panic levels


WASHINGTON -- With less than seven weeks until the midterm elections, President Clinton and the Democratic Party are facing the prospect of a devastating defeat that would threaten both the president's ability to function during the final two years of his term and his re-election in 1996.

Both the opinion polls and the seat-of-the-pants assessments of professionals in both parties point to a defeat far more severe than the party in the White House normally suffers in such midterm elections.

Indeed, if the election were held today, it is quite possible that the Republicans would regain control of the Senate, establish a de facto conservative control of the House and win five or six more governorships in the nation's most populous and politically important states.

The threat to Democrats this year has been at least dimly visible for weeks as Mr. Clinton has dropped in opinion polls and evidence has accumulated that voters will turn their dissatisfaction against incumbents and the Washington political establishment dominated by Democrats.

But Democratic uneasiness has crystallized into near-panic with the results of primaries and new polling data on key races. As one leading Democratic Party official put it privately after hearing the returns from Washington state Tuesday, "You can put me down as spooked."

'It's very ugly out there'

Democratic strategists working in the field are coming back to the capital with little but bad news. "It's very ugly out there," said Tom King, a consultant whose clients included Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, who was defeated in a runoff Tuesday. "I've never seen anything like it."

The most intriguing development was the weak performances in a Washington state primary of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and four other House Democrats -- weak enough to suggest that at least three of the five will fall to Republicans in the general election.

The Democrats' concern has escalated almost daily as more evidence of potential problems surface:

* In California, considered the one state Mr. Clinton must win to be re-elected in 1996, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, written off a year ago as a hopeless case, has pulled ahead of Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown. Polls show Sen. Dianne Feinstein is running no better than even in her race with Rep. Michael Huffington.

* In Tennessee, surveys show both Senate seats in danger of switching from Democratic to Republican. For the seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore, Republican Fred Thompson has pulled even with Rep. Jim Cooper. More surprisingly, Sen. Jim Sasser, a candidate to succeed George Mitchell as majority leader, is holding only a margin-of-error lead over Republican Bill Frist.

* In Massachusetts, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of the invincible Kennedys is facing his first serious challenge ever, from Republican businessman Mitt Romney, who won his party's primary with 82 percent of the vote against a well-financed and ostensibly legitimate opponent.

* In New York, the other leading personification of Democratic liberalism, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, is running behind a Republican state senator, George Pataki, who was almost totally unknown four months ago.

* In Texas, Gov. Ann Richards is running even with Republican George W. Bush, eldest son of the former president.

* In Florida, unpublished polls now show Democratic Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr.'s support leveling off after a gain from his action against more immigration from Cuba and Haiti. Surveys show his lead over Republican Jeb Bush, another son of the former president, in central and northern Florida slimmer than needed for him to win.

Much of the Democratic fear is based on polls that can be volatile and suspect. Even so, the polls seem to be running in only one direction -- against Mr. Clinton and the Democrats. The president's approval rating is down to 40 percent to 42 percent nationally and is under 40 percent among white voters.

In the more conservative South and Southwest, Mr. Clinton is worse off. His approval rating in Texas is about 35 percent. In Alabama, it is 32 percent. Even in New Hampshire, which launched "the comeback kid" two years ago, his approval rating is 39 percent, compared with a disapproval rating of 51 percent.

"I think he's hurting us just like every place," said Joe Keefe, the party chairman in New Hampshire.

'Wrong track'

Another gauge of opinion -- the percentage of Americans who say the nation is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction" -- is discouraging for Democrats. The "wrong track" number has risen to between 60 percent and 65 percent; a number even as low as 50 percent is menacing to incumbents.

The trends in Tennessee, Massachusetts and California indicate that 13 of the 22 Democratic Senate seats at stake Nov. 8 are in jeopardy -- including those from New Mexico, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma. By contrast, only three or four Republican-held seats appear in any jeopardy -- open seats in Minnesota and Wyoming and those of incumbents Conrad Burns of Montana and William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware. Thus, the proposition that the Republicans could gain the seven needed for control is not outlandish.

Republicans already hold governorships of California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and are rated as no worse than even in Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia, and at least highly competitive in New York and Texas.

Republicans must gain 40 seats for control of the House. Few professionals believe that is likely, even granting the weakness of the Clinton image. But there seems to be a consensus that the net Democratic loss will be at least 22 to 25 seats and possibly 30 or more.

But the hard truth for the White House is that Mr. Clinton is probably assured of a House with more Republicans, as well as (( Democrats who saved their skins by behaving like Republicans.

The election is by no means a pure referendum on Mr. Clinton. But his failure to make a convincing case for himself and his party at this point equates to a low level of enthusiasm among Democrats. "If Clinton were a great success," said a Southern party leader who asked not to be identified, "they would be motivated to turn out. As it is, of course, it energizes the damned Republicans."

A Republican consultant in Texas, Karl Rove, said: "He is depressing the vote for Democrats."

In Texas, even Rep. Jack Brooks, who has 42 years in the House, is "running a damned serious race," said Ed Martin, executive director of the state party.

No one seems to have any ideas of how the president or his party can salvage the situation. Asked if he had any ideas, the Georgia chairman, Ed Sims, paused and then replied, "Nothing comes to mind."

Asked if he could see any bright spots in the Democratic picture, veteran poll-taker Bill Hamilton said, "I wish I could say there were, but I can't think what they are."

It may be, as Mr. Keefe suggested, that the pendulum will swing back before election and minimize the damage for the Democrats. If not, they are facing a grim Nov. 8.

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