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Democrats Debate How to Take Hill

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

For four prime-time evenings, Democrats celebrated President Clinton’s march toward reelection this week with televised glitz and glitter. But off-camera, party leaders spent much of their time worrying about a more uncertain contest: the Democrats’ struggle to retake control of the Senate and House.

Despite Clinton’s strength in most of the country, most experts say the Democrats’ chances of retaking Congress--and unseating their favorite target, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--are still less than even. And that has touched off a debate among Democrats about how much the president should do to help his party on Capitol Hill.

In closed-door meetings, party leaders and candidates have appealed to Clinton to focus his campaign on states where key House races are at stake. But Clinton strategists have said so far that the president must concentrate on winning his own seat back and leave House candidates mostly to their own devices.

“We’d like to get the president into Washington state and Massachusetts, but there’s no way,” a congressional campaign strategist said, citing two states where Clinton has comfortable leads but several House seats are at risk.

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Likewise, delegates from Georgia and North Carolina asked in caucus meetings this week for stronger commitments of the president’s time and money to their states, where he is running behind Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole--but got few promises.

Clinton aides said the president is likely to visit all those states at least once this fall, but they acknowledged that their campaign is going to concentrate its time--and its spending on television advertising--in the presidential battleground of the Midwest.

Only if those key states are sewn up will Clinton consider focusing on the congressional races, party officials said. “They can make that decision in late September, if they’re 15 points up and it’s all over,” one Democratic National Committee official said.

“We’ve got to run campaigns that are run for our needs and he’s got to run a campaign for his needs, and we understand that,” said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who would be in line to replace Gingrich as speaker if the Democrats win the House. “Obviously, we’d be glad to have whatever help he can give.”

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The stakes for Clinton are high, Gephardt noted. “He knows that if he’s got Newt Gingrich and [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott, he’s going to spend the next four years playing defense,” he said.

After 1994’s Republican triumph, the Democrats held 198 seats in the 435-member House--meaning that they need a net gain of 20 seats this fall to reach a majority of 218.

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It will not be easy. “The congressional contest is much, much more competitive than the presidential contest,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. “Until a month ago, the Republicans were digging themselves into a very deep hole . . . but they’ve recovered.”

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Recent polls suggest that Democrats will pick up six to 12 seats, not enough to regain a majority, Rothenberg said--although the race remains volatile because many independent voters have not yet made up their minds.

Another independent analyst, Charles Cook, gives the Democrats “a 30%-40% chance of taking the House.”

The Senate is even less likely to fall into the Democrats’ hands, Rothenberg and Cook said, in part because several now-Democratic seats are up for grabs this year.

Once, a presidential candidate with a lead as large as Clinton’s would sweep congressional candidates into office on his “coattails.”

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But voters’ party loyalty has dropped steadily since World War II, and some even say that they deliberately split their presidential and congressional votes because they like the idea of dividing control of the federal government between the two parties.

“Coattails are increasingly less important,” Gephardt said. “It’s very hard for me to convince people in my district to vote for him [Clinton], and it’s very hard for him to convince his people to vote for me.”

So when congressional candidates appeal to the president for help, they are asking him not only to campaign in their states to run up the Democratic vote but to raise money and bring in party-sponsored television advertising.

The strategic problem for the Clinton campaign, though, is that those House races are often in states where the president does not need to spend time--either because he appears certain to win, as in Massachusetts, or certain to lose, as in Mississippi.

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In Arizona, for example, Steve Owens, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore, has a good chance to unseat Rep. J.D. Hayworth, one of the fiercely conservative freshman Republicans who swept into office at Gingrich’s call in 1994. But Owens recognizes that there is little chance Clinton will spend much time or money in his state, which has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 1948.

“They really are two separate races,” he said after delivering a three-minute speech to a largely empty convention hall on Wednesday afternoon--the sort of time most House candidates were allotted at the convention.

“Democratic presidential candidates don’t usually have any coattails in Arizona,” he added. “Democratic congressional candidates, if they win, usually run 10-15 points ahead of the presidential candidate.”

So a Clinton visit isn’t built into his campaign plans. But Owens did win a visit to Scottsdale by his old boss, Gore, who starred at a fund-raising dinner that netted $100,000--a record amount for a single event in an Arizona House race.

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In some respects, Owens’ race might be tailor-made for some help from the president. The young lawyer is a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once led. And he supported Clinton’s decision to sign the Republican-authored welfare reform legislation last month. He is running against one of the most conservative members of the Republican freshman class, a former television broadcaster who has won more attention for his gaffes on the House floor than his first-term achievements.

Like many Democratic challengers, Owens is running as much against Gingrich as against his opponent. “This election is a clear choice between the followers of Newt Gingrich and the extreme, or those of us in the mainstream,” he said in his convention speech.

The job for many Republican candidates, in return, is to walk away from the most unpopular positions Gingrich initially embraced, like opposition to an increased minimum wage. By passing a higher minimum wage, the welfare reform legislation and a measure that makes health insurance easier to retain for those who change jobs, Republican leaders deprived Democrats last month of three issues that they hoped to use this fall.

“The message rug has really been pulled out from under us,” complained Jennifer Sosin of Lake Research, a Democratic polling organization. “We are less confident of our ability to have a national message now.”

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Owens said his opponent, Hayworth, already has begun the process. “He spent the first half of 1995 bragging about how tight he was with Newt Gingrich, but this year he said he saw no reason that he’d ever ask Gingrich in to campaign for him,” Owens said. “It won’t work. He’s stuck with that tar baby.”


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