GOP fears loss of control Dole's lag in polls hurts Republicans in House, Senate races; 'This is not 1994'; Democrats profess that overconfidence is their biggest fear; CAMPAIGN 1996


WASHINGTON -- With Bill Clinton enjoying a commanding lead over Bob Dole in the presidential contest, some Republicans are ready to hit the panic button.

Their fear is that Dole's lagging candidacy will not catch fire and that Republican control of Congress will be swept away in a Clinton tide.

"Everybody wants Dole to get moving, and quickly," says Paul Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant who is advising House and Senate candidates. "We don't like these numbers."

The numbers heavily favor the incumbent. At least five national polls conducted since Labor Day show Clinton with a double-digit lead. No candidate in modern times has been defeated after building so large an advantage this close to a presidential election.

A state-by-state analysis of the election -- which is really 51 separate tests in the states and the District of Columbia -- shows that, if it were held now, Clinton would receive more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

One Republican strategist, privately predicting a Clinton victory, sums up the thinking of voters this way: "Clinton's not that bad. The economy's doing fairly well. Dole is pretty old. Why change?"

As the campaign for the White House enters its final eight weeks, the travel and spending patterns of the candidates tell much of the story. A pumped-up Clinton is taking Dole on in such normally reliable Republican strong holds as Florida and Arizona.

Dole, meantime, is still struggling to introduce himself to the voters and working to build support in parts of the South and West that he should have locked up by now but hasn't.

Overconfidence and apathy?

For Clinton and the Democrats, overconfidence and apathy appear to pose a bigger threat, at the moment, than the challenge from either Dole or third-party candidate Ross Perot, who has yet to emerge as a factor.

"Let me assure you, we are not taking anyone or anyone's vote for granted," Clinton said during his in-your-base campaign swing through Florida last week.

"We know the only poll that counts is the one they take on Nov. 5th."

But another poll number worries many of the Republicans whose names will appear on the ballot with Dole on Election Day. It's the one that shows voters favoring Democrats over Republicans in congressional races.

At the House and Senate level, the '96 campaign "is a battle between the Democratic attempt to make the election some sort of national referendum on Newt Gingrich and the Republican candidates' efforts to turn it into a series of local elections," says analyst Stu Rothenberg.

Odds that Republicans will keep control of Congress, which they have held since 1994, have improved in recent weeks. The change is due largely to passage this summer of popular measures to reform welfare, raise the minimum wage, and provide continued health insurance to people who change or lose jobs.

Still, when voters were asked in three separate national polls last week which party they preferred in local House elections, Democrats were favored over Republicans by margins of 4 or 5 percentage points.

Calculating the odds

The importance of these so-called generic poll numbers (which match political parties, not actual candidates) is a matter of considerable debate among the small group of experts who follow congressional elections on a national basis.

Charles Cook, a leading election analyst, writes in his latest newsletter that a 2- or 3-point Democratic advantage in the generic ballot test is enough to make it likely that control of the House would change hands.

Others, however, believe that the margin would have to be considerably larger.

In either case, a Democratic takeover of Congress -- something that was unthinkable less than a year ago -- is certainly within reach, according to independent analysts and officials in both parties.

Democrats must gain 19 seats in the House (all 435 are at stake) and at least three in the Senate (34 are up for grabs) to regain control.

"Yes, the House is in play. The Senate is in play," Rothenberg says. "It's just a question of how big a [Democratic] wave you think there's going to be."

It is by no means clear that Clinton can create a voter surge powerful enough to lift his party's House and Senate candidates victory.

But Republicans are concerned that the reverse could occur -- an ebb tide generated by a lackluster Dole performance that causes Republican turnout to fall around the country.

"Pray to the saints"

To guard against that, Republicans running in House and Senate races need to "pray to the saints," says Bernadette Budde of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, which is mainly supporting Republican candidates.

The "saints" are the cities of St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Fla., and San Diego, tentative sites of this fall's presidential debates, regarded by many politicians as Dole's last opportunity to spark a comeback.

"Dole has to be adequate," she says. "He has to live up to the limited expectations" for him as a debater.

Other Republicans find glimmers of hope in last week's shake-up in the Dole campaign's advertising team.

The incoming media men are best known for producing hard-hitting negative commercials -- just what Dole needs, say some Republican strategists, to cut Clinton's lead.

"They have to raise doubts about the president because there are a lot of people voting for the president who have doubts," says Stanley Greenberg, Clinton's pollster in 1992.

HTC The attacks will backfire, he predicts, because of rising public resistance to negative campaigning.

The women's vote

L A particular worry for Republicans in this regard are women.

"Troublesome" is how Linda DiVall, a Republican poll-taker, describes Dole's persistent failure to attract female support. In her latest poll, completed Thursday, the former Kansas senator trailed Clinton by 24 points among women voters.

That gender gap was echoed in the congressional ballot, where Republicans ran 16 points behind Democrats among women. DiVall says that it is too early, though, to know how much the presidential race will influence House and Senate contests.

Four years ago, Clinton won the presidency with 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race. His re-election effort is driven by a personal goal: gaining an absolute majority of the popular vote for a second term.

That seems doable, with polls showing his support among likely voters at or slightly above 50 percent.

Clinton is benefiting from a good economy and growing optimism across the country.

One popular political indicator -- the number of Americans who feels the country is heading in the right direction -- now stands at its highest level since the Persian Gulf war, which makes it more difficult for Dole, and other challengers, to argue for change.

"This is not 1994. It's not 1992. It's a far cry from the political environment that elected Clinton or that spawned a Republican Congress," says Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster.

That may portend a status quo election. "It means 1996 could bear a resemblance to 1984," he adds, "when voters voted to keep control in the hands of the incumbent president and the party in power in the House and the Senate."

Alan Secrest, an adviser to Democratic House and Senate candidates, agrees.

"I just don't think you see the political tsunami coming this year," he says.

While Clinton is paying lip service to the need to elect a Democratic Congress, the overall thrust of his candidacy seems to undercut that message.

"One of Clinton's best arguments is, 'I'm a brake on the Republican Congress,' " notes Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta.

"That means there is no incentive for him to go out and argue for a Democratic Congress. If he does, he takes away one of his best arguments."

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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