WASHINGTON -- Forget about Iowa and New Hampshire. Suddenly, the spotlight of national politics is focused not on the fledgling presidential campaigns but on the jockeying for control of Congress next year.
Yesterday's announcement by Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey that he would not seek re-election, Hillary Rodham Clinton's very public musings about a possible Senate run, and President Clinton's reported pledge to help oust House Republicans who sought his impeachment have highlighted early maneuvering in the 2000 congressional races.
With polls showing public regard slipping for the Republicans since the impeachment drive began, voters are looking more favorably on Democrats to tend to their interests. For the first time since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Democrats are entering an election cycle with a jaunty self-confidence. And Republicans are playing defense to try to preserve their slender 11-seat majority in the House.
"The House is up for grabs for either party right now," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. The public's perception, Jacobson said, is that "the Republicans are the party who don't pay any attention to the people."
The Democrats' hopes will depend "on their ability to paint the Republicans as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the religious right," Jacobson said. "If they can make that stick, their candidates in many places would be able to take advantage of that."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the chief recruiter for the House Democrats, is mining the ranks of city council members, mayors, state legislators and entrepreneurs for potential new candidates. "We are very confident that we are going to take back the House," Hoyer said.
Democratic strategists said they might not have to explicitly wield the impeachment issue against Republicans who represent moderate districts sympathetic to Clinton. Instead, they can stress positions that would link those Republicans to the party's conservative wing.
But some Republicans dismiss impeachment as a lasting issue, predicting that it will fade by November 2000.
"They have about six months to make an issue of it," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, a Republican from a moderate district in San Diego. "Then the presidential race will come along, and the House races will get lost in the noise. With the right ticket, the Republican position could be much better than it was in the last election."
Nonetheless, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, the new chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, recently warned his House colleagues: To push impeachment off the radar screen, they need to raise money as early as possible and develop an agenda of pocketbook issues important to average Americans.
Republican moderates such as Bilbray, Reps. Tom Campbell, Steve Horn and James E. Rogan of California, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut and John Edward Porter of Illinois, along with a few conservatives such as Anne Northup of Kentucky, all represent districts that delivered majorities for Clinton in 1996. Votes in favor of impeachment, when considered as part of a package of votes, could hurt those lawmakers from swing districts who have won with narrow margins, some analysts say.
In particular, Rogan, who played a visible role as a prosecutor in Clinton's Senate trial, is an inviting target in a district in which the president is popular.
"Nobody can afford to mess up," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter. "The stakes are so high, they can't afford to lose just one of their seats."
By Hoyer's count, 33 Republicans occupy marginal seats, but only 26 Democrats do so.
In the Senate, where the Republicans hold a 55-to-45 majority, a switch in control is considered less likely. However, a high number of Republicans -- 19 -- are up for re-election next year, compared with 14 Democrats. (Two of those Democrats, Lautenberg and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, have said they will retire.)
Three Republican senators -- Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rod Grams of Minnesota and James M. Jeffords of Vermont -- all won election with roughly 50 percent of the vote in 1994, a banner year for Republicans overall. Republican Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington state and William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware are also potentially vulnerable. Democrats hope to take advantage of Santorum's and Grams' votes in favor of convicting Clinton.
Targeting GOP moderates
Jeffords is among several Northeastern moderates up for re-election in 2000 who voted to acquit the president. But Democrats still intend to tie them to the GOP's right wing by stressing the party's stands on such social issues as education and the environment.
Sensing the advantage, Democrats are already kicking their campaigns into high gear. "They're running three to four months ahead of where they usually are at this time," said Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money for the party's candidates.
Even Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who typically waits until election year to gin up his campaign, has started to raise money and hire consultants in anticipation of his 2000 campaign for a fifth six-year term.
Yet the retirements of Lautenberg and Moynihan -- coupled with the vulnerability of Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia to a likely challenge by former Gov. George F. Allen -- will make the Senate more difficult than the House for the Democrats to claim.
The advantage of incumbency, which bolsters name recognition and the ability to raise money, is often insurmountable. Hoyer tells would-be House candidates that they have to be willing to raise several hundred thousand dollars before political action committees affiliated with Democrats will kick in contributions.
"I'm not interested in throwing away my resources, whether it's time, talent or money," said Hoyer, who parceled out money he controlled to candidates in the 1998 House campaigns.
Paul Berendt, the Democratic party chairman in Washington state, said his state is in the midst of a Democratic resurgence, fueled by anger over the president's impeachment. Democrats took back two Republican seats in November, and several lawmakers seem eager to challenge Gorton.
Last month, a direct-mail fund-raising drive by Washington state Democrats brought in $12,000 on the first day, double the party's record take in previous mailings.
"Those who say all this is going to go away in 2000 are not accepting the underlying issue that is creating backlash: that the right wing is exhibiting too much power in Washington, D.C., and has to be stopped," Berendt said. "They're whistling in the dark."
Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/18/99