ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Renee Davison, the Republican candidate for Congress here, is still trying to put the best face on it. "I'm going to keep whaling away at her until the end," she says of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter.
But going into the final days of the campaign, much of the optimism in the Republican camp in the 28th District has been dissolved by the realities of running an underfunded campaign against an incumbent Democrat who has built a strong personal identity in four terms in the House.
The probable re-election of Ms. Slaughter does not, in itself, signal how the race for control of the House will turn out on Nov. 8. But she is the kind of liberal incumbent whom the Republicans had to defeat -- her share of the vote dropped to 55 percent in winning re-election last time -- if they were to have any chance of picking up the 40 seats they need to gain control.
So it is reasonable to infer from Ms. Davison's problems -- and those of several other Republican challengers in similar situations -- that the Republican gain will fall short, even though it may be enough -- 20 to 30 seats, perhaps -- to make President Clinton's life miserable in the next two years.
Ms. Slaughter's apparent success in holding off Ms. Davison, a member of the Monroe County legislature, doesn't mean there isn't hostility in the electorate against the president, the Democratic establishment in Washington and anything smacking of liberalism. But in this case, the Democratic incumbent kept the campaign from becoming nationalized, and relied on her own strengths and Republican weaknesses.
The only published poll here, several weeks old, shows Ms. Slaughter 20 points ahead, and new private surveys don't show it any closer.
One of the reasons has been the problems Ms. Davison has had raising money. Her campaign had hoped to raise $400,000 to $500,000, but she will be lucky to reach $300,000. She has been unable to fund direct-mail or radio advertising and went dark on television for 18 days earlier this month.
"The strategy is still solid, the message is still solid," she says,"but we've had to change the delivery because of the money."
One problem for the Davison campaign is the gubernatorial campaign. The Republican nominee, George Pataki, has tapped Republican contributors here for $600,000 in which other candidates might have shared -- without any compensating show of strength at the top of the ticket.
"We anticipated we'd get a big boost from Pataki's campaign," says the Monroe County Republican chairman, Steven J. Minarik III, "but it hasn't happened." The reason is obvious. This is also the hometown of Thomas Golisano, who is running for governor on the Independent Fusion Party line and is drawing off much of the vote against Gov. Mario M. Cuomo that Republicans need.
Meanwhile, Ms. Slaughter has gone her merry way. The 65-year-old veteran legislator -- she served in the county and state legislatures before going to Washington -- has been on the air with TV commercials continually since Labor Day, advertising her own record and rebutting Ms. Davison's complaints about it. The Democratic incumbent probably will spend $600,000 or more before it is over.
Democratic leaders had feared that Mr. Minarik would mount the kind of concentrated campaign against Ms. Slaughter that he achieved in recent years to elect such officials as the county executive and county clerk. They are somewhat surprised this hasn't happened. The Monroe County Democratic chairman, Robert Cook, concedes, "I would have expected it to be a little closer."
The Republican optimism about beating Ms. Slaughter had been based on the belief that her ties to President Clinton and, earlier, to Mr. Cuomo could be used to good effect. And James Smith, Ms. Davison's campaign manager, still plans a final-week TV commercial using a slot machine motif and putting Ms. Slaughter's face on the screen, along with those of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Cuomo.
The Republicans already have run one spot contending that Ms. Slaughter voted with Mr. Clinton on 88 percent of the issues and asking: "Do you think Bill Clinton is right 88 percent of the time?"
The president still appears weak in the district. Ms. Slaughter says she is baffled by an electorate that gives Mr. Clinton little credit for anything he has accomplished. "People are skeptical when I talk about the improvement in the economy," she says.
So Ms. Slaughter has followed a different route. On the one hand, she has stressed the things that she has been able to do for the district because of her role in the House. And she has brought in big party names -- Vice President Al Gore, Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos -- to underline the argument that she is a big hitter in the Congress.
This has been difficult for the Republicans to counter. Ms. Davison and Mr. Minarik complain that political action committees have been reluctant to contribute to an opponent of Ms. Slaughter because she sits on the powerful Rules Committee. But it is hard to make that case without tacitly acknowledging that she is a figure of some influence.
Ms. Slaughter even seems to have gotten away with voting against the North American Free Trade Agreement, a vote that ran counter to the interests of many businesses based here. Business leaders say they can put that vote aside because of other things she has done for the district -- or perhaps because they, too, are sensitive to her place on the Rules Committee.
Ms. Davison has relied on the issues that Republicans everywhere are finding effective in challenging liberal Democrats taxes, crime and term limits, most notably. "She's wide open on the death penalty," Ms. Davison says.
But the lack of money to make the case with commercials means it doesn't get made. Ms. Davison recently was given the maximum funding of $55,000 by the National Republican Congressional Committee, a puzzling outlay in view of her long-shot status now, and has received contributions from such leading House Republicans as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. But the Republican's spending on television in the final two weeks will still be little more than half that of Ms. Slaughter's campaign.
Polls have been known to be wrong, so there is always the chance of an upset. But it appears that Ms. Davison won't make it here -- and if she doesn't, it will be that much more difficult for the Republicans to win the House.