MAKING DEMOCRATIC DISTINCTIONS IN N.C. Perceptions may be the key to winning races CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR CONTROL OF CONGRESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With all 435 House seats at stake this fall and voter anger at 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 third report on the campaign in the 5th District of North Carolina.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- When Gov. Jim Hunt Jr. toured the Mud Pies day care center here the other day, state Sen. A. P. "Sandy" Sands was just over his left shoulder in all the pictures.

Mr. Sands is the Democratic candidate for Congress here, and Jim Hunt is an extremely popular politician. More to the point for Mr. Sands, he is another "North Carolina Democrat" -- one without any obvious connections to Washington or to President Clinton.

In contrast to his welcome of Mr. Hunt, the congressional candidate passed up the chance to have Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen stump in his behalf. Mr. Bentsen may be a conservative Democrat of the stamp that usually prospers in North Carolina, but he still represents Washington and Mr. Clinton.

Trying to keep it local

The message is that with the campaign coming down to the wire, Mr. Sands is still trying -- with mixed success -- to keep the election from being nationalized into a referendum on the Clinton administration.

By most estimates, it hasn't worked. The conventional wisdom here, supported by some unpublished polls, is that the Republican candidate, Richard Burr, will win the seat being vacated by Democrat Stephen L. Neal after 20 years.

The outcome will be watched closely. This is one of 12 to 15 vacant seats that Republicans must win if they are to make a substantial gain -- 25 to 30 seats or more -- in the House. All are districts in which Democrats held on for years while their constituencies turned steadily more Republican.

But even if Mr. Burr wins here, the Republicans face tough arithmetic in gaining the 40 seats they would need for control. There are about 150 House seats considered "in play" at this point -- 100 held by the Democrats, 50 by the Republicans. If the Republicans lose even one-fifth of their exposed seats, they would have to win half of the vulnerable Democratic seats to reach the 218 that would make Newt Gingrich the next speaker of the House.

Many variables

Such a showing doesn't seem impossible, given the anti-Democratic mood. But there are many variables, as seen in two other North Carolina districts in which Republicans have had high hopes that may not be fulfilled Tuesday.

In the 2nd District, where Democrat Tim Valentine is retiring, the early favorite was Republican David Funderburk, an extreme conservative, over Democrat Richard Moore, a state legislator. But the district includes part of the Research Triangle -- Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill -- in which the hard-right line is not an easy sell. And even Republicans concede that the party lacks the organization to be effective in turning out their vote. So the race is now rated essentially even.

The Republicans also had sound reason for optimism in the 3rd District, where Democratic Rep. H. Martin Lancaster is being challenged by Walter Jones Jr., a former Democrat. Mr. Lancaster was thrown on the defensive by the Jones campaign's use of a film clip of Mr. Lancaster sharing a jog in Washington with Mr. Clinton. But now a picture has been uncovered of Mr. Jones with Mr. Clinton at a fund-raiser in 1991, when he was still a Democrat, so all bets are being hedged.

Thus, while it would be no surprise if the Republicans won all three seats they targeted in this state, it is by no means assured.

The dimensions of the Republican problem also have been made clear in some districts in which Democratic incumbents had appeared to be vulnerable but are proving less so. Even Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the liberal from the Philadelphia suburbs who cast the decisive vote for Mr. Clinton's budget plan last year, is now given at least an even chance of survival.

Some may survive

Other endangered incumbents who appear likely to survive are those who have refused to allow their elections to be nationalized -- that is, seen as a referendum on the president and the ruling Democratic establishment in Washington rather than simply a choice at the local level. That seems to be the case with such Democrats as Reps. Louise Slaughter of New York and Sander Levin of Michigan, who were linked to Mr. Clinton but appear to have succeeded in defining themselves in other terms.

That is not the story with Mr. Sands, the Democrat here. Although his state Senate district covers almost half the congressional district, he entered the race as a relatively unknown quantity in the other half and thus has allowed Mr. Burr's highly professional campaign to define him for the electorate.

Mr. Burr, who ran a creditable but losing race against Mr. Neal two years ago, has used TV commercials to depict Mr. Sands as a devotee of higher taxes, salary increases and higher spending -- and an ally of Bill Clinton. Some of the claims might not stand scrutiny. He can hardly be blamed, for example, for the 60 percent increase in state spending during his eight years in the Senate. But the fact that these things happened in Raleigh rather than Washington may be lost when a Burr commercial concludes, "Like Bill Clinton, Sandy Sands sees new taxes and spending as the answer."

As a result, Mr. Sands has been lumped with other Democrats with closer ties to Mr. Clinton. "The hardest thing we've had to deal with," said Cormac Flynn, Mr. Sands' campaign manager, is the "basic charge is that you're a Democrat."

What kind of Democrat

Mr. Sands has tried to offer a different perception with his insistence that he is "a North Carolina Democrat" or a "Sam Ervin Democrat." But the charge that he is another tax-and-spend Democrat has hurt. "It's cutting," he said, "There's no question but it's cutting."

The importance of the race is apparent in the way money has poured into both campaigns. Mr. Burr's spending has passed $700,000, and Mr. Sands is only $100,000 or so behind.

He wouldn't have believed it, Mr. Sands says, "if somebody had told me I'd raise this much money and still be outspent."

Meanwhile, Mr. Burr is beginning to smell the roses. At a candidates' night Tuesday, he told fellow Republicans, "We're one week from a celebration."

And in the audience, Junior Higgins, a dairy farmer, pronounced a benediction: "If there ain't too damned many liars out there, I think he's got it this time."

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