DEMOCRATS FINALLY FIND CAMPAIGN THEME But seizing on GOP's 'contract' seen as odd politics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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 one in an occasional series on selected House races around the country, and the second report on the campaign in the 5th District of North Carolina.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- If you want to capture the 1994 campaign for the House of Representatives in a single episode, a debate here the other night between Democrat A. P. Sands and Republican Richard Burr would be a good place to start.

In a 70-minute confrontation broadcast by a public radio station, Sandy Sands pressed one point -- that Richard Burr was promising "pie in the sky" because he had joined other Republicans in signing the "contract with America," which endorsed, among other things, tax cuts, a balanced-budget amendment, term limits and a line-item veto.

The contract, Mr. Sands said, falls $800 billion short in providing the means to pay for its promises. "Will you tell us, specifically, where you plan on getting this other $800 billion?" he asked.

Mr. Burr wasn't fazed. He hadn't agreed to support every item in the contract, he said, only to bring them to the House for a vote. In any case, economic growth would increase revenue. The one commitment he had made was to reform how Congress does business.

"The only way to change Washington is to change Congress," he said to applause. "But this is not a Congress that is reflective of the people. It's time we take it back and make it work for us instead of against us."

That is the core of the House campaign. Democratic candidates such as Mr. Sands have seized on the "contract with America" gimmick as evidence that Republicans plan to return to the trickle-down economics of Ronald Reagan. "We tried this before, Richard, and it didn't work then," Mr. Sands told his opponent in the race for the 5th District seat being vacated by Democrat Stephen L. Neal.

Mr. Sands suggests that the only legitimate inference to be drawn from the Republican "contract" is that the Republicans would reduce Social Security and Medicare. In the debate, he even argued that the costs of the Republican program could threaten such local projects as the construction of an interstate highway and a nutrition center at Bowman Gray Medical School.

But Mr. Burr is determined to hold to his message that "we have to change Congress before we can do anything else."

Several inferences can be drawn -- and several pertinent questions raised -- from this contest with about a month left in the campaign. The Democrats finally have found a campaign theme. But it is odd politics indeed for candidates of a party in power to be attacking the proposals of the "outs" rather than running on the accomplishments of their own party.

That more conventional strategy has been foreclosed by the political weakness of President Clinton and the Democratic establishment. Although there is no recent poll in this district, a survey in a neighboring and not dissimilar district last month found Mr. Clinton with an extremely low 28 percent approval rating.

Beyond that, there is the question of whether Mr. Sands or any other Democrat can score a point with the electorate by faulting a Republican gimmick to which most voters don't seem to have given much attention. "I've always been a Democrat," a lawyer here said privately, "but I'm damned if I can figure out what all this is about the $800 billion. That's not what this is all about."

By contrast, Mr. Burr's message is clear and understandable -- in effect, that Democrats have been there too long, have made a mess and deserve to be sent packing. It is, moreover, the precise message that opinion polls suggest reflects the mood of the electorate after two years of the Clinton administration.

If those polls are accurate, Mr. Burr should be counted as a favorite, and the Republicans may be headed for a gain of 25 or more seats in the House -- not the 40 needed for control but enough to radically change the nature of the Congress Mr. Clinton will confront.

Mr. Sands, a state senator for eight years, professes to be encouraged. "I think it's turning around," he said. "We're picking up even more momentum." He also disputes the notion that Mr. Clinton is such a drag on his party's candidates.

But it is plain that the Democratic candidate wants to keep as much distance as possible from the White House. He describes himself as "a North Carolina Democrat" or "a Sam Ervin Democrat" -- the implication being that he is more independent and more conservative than Mr. Clinton. And when Mr. Sands attended a fund-raiser in Raleigh featuring Vice President Al Gore, he didn't go up on the stage to have his picture taken with the visitor from Washington.

Mr. Burr, a business executive who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Neal two years ago, is brimming with confidence. He is finding it easier than expected to raise the money -- more than $500,000 -- he needs. And his campaign is running commercials on all three network stations in the Piedmont Triad -- Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. So far, the ads have been positive 30-second spots, with only a small dig at Mr. Clinton, that play on the theme that it is time for replacing the politicians in Washington. Mr. Sands is not yet on the air, although his campaign may start running spots next week.

But the key is whether the Democrat must bear the burdens of his party and his political history, although he has been serving in Raleigh, not Washington. Mr. Burr describes Mr. Sands as "a career politician" or, worse, "a trial lawyer and professional politician."

These thrusts nettled Mr. Sands enough so that in their first debate 10 days ago, he referred to Mr. Burr as "an appliance salesman" who didn't know enough about how government works. It was an opening the Republican exploited at the debate -- grinning and waving a new bumper sticker that read: "Appliance salesmen for Burr."

There are other issues. Both men are committed to protecting the tobacco industry. There is fear about jobs. "I think there's a great deal of concern out there," Mr. Sands said. "They remember 1990 and 1991."

The operative question, nonetheless, is simple -- whether the voters are so turned off by Washington that they would be happy to replace the politicians with appliance salesmen.

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