The fact that several polls have indicated that most voters had never heard of it at the time they cast their ballots has not inhibited House Speaker Newt Gingrich from making that claim.
Now comes further evidence, in a New York Times/CBS News poll of 1,190 adults, that for all the publicity the contract has received since Nov. 8, most say they still don't know anything about it.
Furthermore, a majority of Americans in the poll say they disagree with some basic tenets of the contract, and are more concerned about problems that are not its major features.
For example, while 79 percent say they favor a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a central element in the Republican document, only 32 percent back it if balancing the budget requires cuts in Social Security, which many critics say would be unavoidable.
At the same time, more respondents said they preferred balancing the budget (55 percent) than cutting taxes (40 percent), which is another centerpiece of the contract.
A majority also opposes three Republican anti-crime initiatives this year -- lifting the ban on assault weapons, permitting more police searches without warrants and throwing out President Clinton's program to put 100,000 more police on the cities' streets, giving the money involved to the states in block grants instead.
The respondents indicated disagreement, too, with the Republicans' plans to increase defense spending and to deny welfare to unmarried mothers under age 18 who can't support their children.
All these findings would seem to indicate that the contract, far from reflecting what Americans want, is off the beam in important respects.
The voter attitudes about the contract suggest that, despite the gloom that has gripped the Democrats since Nov. 8, there are areas of public interest that can be exploited by them. After the initial shock over losing control of Congress, President Clinton and the Democratic congressional leadership have adopted the line that the Republicans don't merely want to change the federal government, they want to wreck it with their contract.
The Democrats managed to defeat the House Republicans' effort to kill
the food stamp program, painting it as indicative of the GOP's lack of compassion. The favored Democratic formulation was that the Republicans wanted to take food from the mouths of hungry poor children to give tax cuts to the rich.
Such rhetoric didn't sell last fall to an electorate determined to punish Democratic congressional incumbents then in charge for legislative gridlock. The latest poll provides raw material for the Democrats to argue that the Republicans now in charge, and their ballyhooed contract, aren't in tune with America either.
The challenge for the Democrats is to convince voters that it is they who are more in step with Main Street. Interestingly, the Times/CBS survey indicates that Americans want Congress to focus on job creation and health care. These are two goals that earlier were at the top of Clinton's agenda, but have been somewhat muted as he has scrambled to compete with the Republicans on tax cuts and other features of the GOP contract.
Right now, the Democratic political strategy appears to be essentially a negative one -- to convince voters that the Republican Party is in the hands of extremists pushing extreme ideas that will hurt average working Americans. If the poll's finding is accurate that voters are more concerned about jobs and health care, it should encourage Clinton to get on the offensive on both issues as a more positive message to enhance his re-election chances next year.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt says the poll is "proof positive that the American people are interested in things they have to deal with every day -- jobs, standard of living, health care, education, Social Security," and that the contract is "irrelevant" to those matters.
As soon as the current 100-day Republican push on the contract is over, he says, the Democrats will offer their agenda for the second 100 days. They are waiting, he says, because "only then will people be ready to listen" to the Democratic alternatives.