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GOP Sees War Vote Leading to Key Gains in ’92 : Politics: Strategists expect an erosion in Democrats’ congressional advantage because many in party opposed Bush on use of force in Gulf.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The time is late in the 1992 election campaign. The scene is a monster political rally in any state where a Republican is challenging an incumbent Democratic senator who voted against authorizing President Bush to use force in the Persian Gulf crisis.

“The President is going to be standing on a platform next to our candidate,” Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm predicted, “and saying: ‘At a critical moment in leading our nation in the world, I needed bipartisan support. And your senator voted to undercut me. And, if you’re going to send me back to do the job, elect our Republican candidate to stand with me.’ ”

“It’s powerful,” said Gramm, chairman of the GOP Senate Campaign Committee.

Republican strategists believe that such a tableau, re-enacted time and again on the hustings in 1992, could help set in motion a sea change in American politics by hastening the erosion of the current advantage that Democrats enjoy in Congress.

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Their strength on Capitol Hill has given Democrats national clout, even though their presidential candidates have lost five of the last six elections, in part because of perceived weakness on foreign policy.

“The American people for two decades have been suspicious of the Democratic Party at the presidential level on issues of defense and foreign policy,” Gramm contends. “Now, with this vote (on the Persian Gulf), the focus of that suspicion turns to Congress.”

In the House, where Democrats now hold a 102-seat advantage, opportunity beckons for the GOP because redistricting and retirements are expected to create a bumper crop of open seats next year. House Democrats voted, 179 to 86, against authorizing force in the Persian Gulf.

GOP consultant Eddie Mahe thinks that a Bush landslide in the presidential race, an outcome that right now would surprise few professionals in either party, would give Republicans the chance to pick up as many as 40 to 50 House seats.

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In the Senate, where Republicans trail Democrats by only eight seats, the party has a built-in advantage because only 15 GOP seats will be on the 1992 ballot, compared to 20 for the Democrats. Only 10 of the Senate’s 56 Democrats voted to authorize the use of force.

Gramm said that the allies’ overwhelming victory in the Middle East has spurred a boom in fund raising and candidate recruitment for Senate races. “At this point in the election cycle, we’re in a stronger position now (to regain control) than at any time in the past decade,” he said.

He cited five Senate Democrats facing reelection who have been shown by polls to be particularly vulnerable, in part because they voted against using force: Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia, Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado and Brock Adams of Washington.

In their defense, Democrats point to their steadfast support for Bush once the actual fighting started. And they contend that the Republicans run the risk of a backlash if they keep pounding away on this issue.

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“I don’t think that’s going to work well with the American people,” said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. “They frankly were gratified that, in this situation, there was an absence of political posturing.”

Even Republicans concede that the single vote on the war will not necessarily provide a foolproof recipe for victory at the polls 20 months from now.

“Let me tell you, no way am I going to ride on the laurels of a war vote and gamble that that’s enough to get you home,” said California’s newly appointed U.S. senator, Republican John Seymour. “If we’re not out of this recession, I might as well pack my bags, because people are going to vote their pocketbooks.”

Nevertheless, Seymour believes that he can make an issue out of the fact that his expected Democratic challenger, Dianne Feinstein, initially opposed authorizing the use of force, although she later recanted that view.

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Although other issues will weigh on voters’ minds in 1992, “this issue (the war) is different,” GOP consultant Doug Bailey said. “This was on television, and those pictures will live in people’s minds.”

Moreover, Republicans contend that the war issue takes on political significance, beyond the single January roll call, as a way of dramatizing what they regard as Democratic “softness” on foreign policy and defense.

“It’s not a silver bullet, but it sure opens the door for us,” said Republican consultant Tony Fabrizio. “This vote helps to define liberal ideology, and voters have an instant reaction to it.”

Although the outlook could change, it appears for now that the successful conclusion of Operation Desert Storm has put the Democrats on the defensive on both the presidential and congressional levels.

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What makes the blow seem particularly cruel to party leaders is its timing, coming just as the end of the Cold War appeared to be relegating foreign policy debate to the political back burner.

Democrats have been on the short end of that debate for most of the last half-century, derided by Republican critics as by and large a party of misguided, spineless losers. They were accused of losing the post-World War II peace at the 1945 Yalta conference, of losing China to the Communists and of losing the chance for military victory first in Korea and then in Vietnam.

With the recent easing in East-West tensions, Democrats had hoped that their foreign policy vulnerabilities would diminish, thus increasing their chances of competing effectively for the presidency, the race in which such issues have hurt them the most.

Instead, Democratic reluctance to use force against Iraq has given new relevance and credence to the familiar and damaging charges that the party’s leaders lack the will and nerve to be trusted with protecting the nation’s security.

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Only one congressional Democrat taken seriously as a possible 1992 presidential contender, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, voted to use force. And Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb, who is chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and who also voted for force, thinks that any presidential candidate who took the other side would face what he calls a “threshold” problem if he or she were nominated.

“I’m not saying it is disqualifying,” Robb said in an interview. “But it puts a much greater burden on someone to prove that he has will and resolve on that issue.”

But Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who is said to be considering making a run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, calls that notion “ridiculous.”

Bentsen argues that the difference between Bush and the Democrats, who like himself voted in favor of continuing economic sanctions rather than authorizing force, was just “a question of timing.” The ultimate use of force, he said, “wasn’t ruled out at all.”

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Like many other Democrats, Bentsen is irritated by criticism from Republicans that appears to call into question their patriotism.

“Any fellow who has a military record fighting for his country, they (the Republicans) are going to have a tough time questioning his patriotism,” Bentsen said.

He points out that North Carolina’s Sanford, thought by Republicans to be vulnerable because of his vote against force and prior criticism of Bush’s Persian Gulf policies, was a decorated World War II paratrooper. Bentsen himself was an Air Force squadron commander in World War II and flew 35 combat missions.


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