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Democrats dare to dream Republicans are confident; 435 House seats, 33 in Senate up for grabs; CAMPAIGN 1996

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Election Day is six months away, but Rep. Martin Frost wishes it were tomorrow.

Armed with polls that show the Republican Congress still highly unpopular with the voters, Democrats like Mr. Frost are daring to dream of reclaiming the House of Representatives, which they lost in 1994 after 40 years of control.

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"The House Republicans are the gang that can't shoot straight. Like many revolutionaries, they can't govern once they get in power," says the Texan, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They've given us an extraordinary opportunity to take the House back."

Whether that happens or not -- and even the most partisan Democrats put the odds at no better than about 50-50 -- there is little doubt that Democratic prospects have brightened significantly. As the congressional campaign season begins, a field of battle that once tilted Republican seems to be sloping in the other direction.

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"A year ago, we were talking about how many more seats Republicans would pick up. Now, the whole frame of reference is fundamentally different," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan newsletter on congressional elections.

More audacious are Democratic visions of unseating enough Republican senators this fall to create a 51-seat Democratic majority. "We might do better," boasts Steve Jarding of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Spring fever? Quite possibly. Many analysts believe that when the rhetorical smoke clears and the votes are counted, Republicans will retain control of both houses of Congress.

"There would have to be a stronger pro-Democratic tide than I sense today," says Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "Democratic candidates would have to sweep all of the close races" to put their party back in charge.

Mr. Rothenberg is forecasting a Democratic gain of eight to 10 House seats -- short of the 20 needed to regain the majority. He sees little change in the Senate, where Democrats would need at least three more seats to take control. But, he adds, "it's certainly not silly" to consider a Democratic wave this November sweeping the party back into power on both sides of Capitol Hill.

Competitive races

All 435 House seats are up for grabs this fall, along with 33 of the 100 slots in the Senate. About one-third of the House races and two-thirds of the Senate contests are regarded as competitive, and it is there that the parties and their allies are focusing their attention. For their part, Republican leaders are sticking with predictions that they'll gain seats in both chambers. Rep. Bill Paxon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, reassured his colleagues on that point in briefings last week.

"This has nothing to do with tidal waves or polling numbers," he says, downplaying surveys that show voters choosing Democrats over Republicans for Congress if the election were held today.

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"We're building toward an election on Nov. 5," the New York congressman adds, noting that Republicans have a number of factors on their side: more campaign money, fewer seats of retiring representatives to defend (12, vs. 22 for the Democrats) and the continuing Republican trend in the South, where the party is likely to pick up seats.

Privately, however, some Republican officials concede that Democrats have a shot at putting an end to Newt Gingrich's speakership and the first Republican-led Congress in a generation. Mr. Gingrich himself is reported to have said as much at a recent planning session in the offices of Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour.

The Republicans' deteriorating prospects are closely linked to Mr. Gingrich's unpopularity -- the public views him more negatively than any other major government official -- and to GOP mishandling of the politics of its prolonged budget fight with the White House. The fiscal struggle included two lengthy shutdowns of the federal government and caused many older Americans to fear that they'd be hurt by changes in the Medicare program.

Another cause for concern: Sen. Bob Dole's spring slump. The likely nominee trails President Clinton by as much as 21 points, according to the latest polls.

"More often than not, coattails operate in reverse. A bad &L; presidential candidate can drag down his party's congressional candidates," says a Gingrich aide, quickly adding that "Bob Dole is not Michael Dukakis or George McGovern. He's not going to lose a 49-state landslide."

If Mr. Dole fails to get his campaign on track, however, Republican candidates could well start separating themselves from the national ticket, out of fear that they might get pulled down with it.

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Some Republicans may already be headed in that direction. "If there ever was an every-man-for-himself [election] cycle, this would be it," says John D. Heubusch, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I just don't think there is a national strategy that works for either side."

The original plan

That wasn't the original plan, at least for Republicans. Until public opinion turned against the Congress, GOP candidates had expected to run -- and win -- this year on the theme that the country needs a Republican president to complete the party's conservative "revolution."

These days, however, it's Mr. Clinton who is surging, and he's done it by making the opposite argument. In vetoing major Republican initiatives, he's promoted himself as a brake on Congress and what he says are its extremist elements. His popularity with voters, especially independents and women, has shot up.

"He's been very cagey in the way he's articulated some issues," said Mr. Paxon, citing Mr. Clinton's attacks on the environment and education.

House and Senate Democrats, meantime, suddenly find themselves in the curious position of following the lead of Mr. Clinton, who enraged many of them last year when he adopted a controversial strategy of "triangulation" -- which amounted to distancing himself from his party's congressional wing.

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Mr. Clinton and the Democrats have yet to offer a coherent picture of what their agenda would be if both the White House and Congress were again under their control, as it was in 1993 and 1994. And while Democratic candidates seem pleased to stand with the Mr. Clinton at rallies, the president has yet to highlight a Democratic Congress as a key element of his re-election message.

Still, hopes for a comeback are already paying Democratic dividends, by salvaging what had been a poor year for candidate recruitment. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who's been beating the bushes from Oregon to Florida in search of Democratic challengers, says that "there is no longer a reluctance [by potential candidates] to believe, 'Yes, I can win this seat.' "

Iowa state Senate President Leonard Boswell, who decided in March to give up his job in the legislature and run for the House, insists he has little interest in coming to Washington to join a minority party.

"If I thought that I was going to stay in the minority," he says, "that would have made a difference in my decision to run."

The Iowa contest is one of 120 key House races in this year's election, none of them in Maryland. Most involve open seats, where an incumbent is leaving, or the re-election races of first-term congressmen, typically the most vulnerable incumbents, including many members of the large and spirited Republican freshman class.

Senate showdowns are expected in about two dozen states, most involving seats held by Democrats. Vulnerable incumbents are equally divided between the major parties. They include Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts, Max Baucus of Montana and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, as well as Republicans Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Larry Pressler of South Dakota and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

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But the main campaign action will be in races to fill the seats of 13 retiring senators. Republicans need seven additional seats to reach their goal of 60 -- the number required, under Senate rules, to squelch filibusters. Their best chances of gaining some of the eight seats being vacated by Democrats are in Georgia (where Sam Nunn is leaving) New Jersey (Bill Bradley), Arkansas (David Pryor), Alabama (Howell Heflin), and Louisiana (J. Bennett Johnston).

A Democratic takeover would require a triple play: winning most, if not all, of the seats of their retiring veterans; defeating one or more Republican incumbents; and picking up the seats of a couple of retiring GOP senators, who include William S. Cohen of Maine, Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.

Pub Date: 5/01/96


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