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In GOP Bids for Congress, an Arm’s Length Approach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a striking election-year conversion, the Republicans who seized control of Congress in 1994 by coalescing into a proud, disciplined band of team players have dissolved into a jostling pack of political free agents.

As they head into the final days of the campaign season, Republicans in key congressional races are distancing themselves from their party’s “contract with America,” from their legislative leadership and even, in some cases, from party presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Talk of the contract has faded. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has become persona non grata in many swing districts. And GOP strategists predict that in coming days, endangered Republicans will argue that voters should reelect them to keep President Clinton in check--an argument that in effect concedes Dole’s defeat.

“This is 435 individual races, and everybody’s got to do what they got to do to win,” said Rich Galen, a top aide to Gingrich. “In the 40 or 50 campaigns that are very close, they have to do whatever works for them.”

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If Republicans manage to keep control of the House, their success may be attributable to a sharp shift in strategy from two years ago, when they nationalized congressional elections and ran on a clear party agenda.

“One of the real questions floating after 1994 was, would Republicans stick together and run for reelection as members of a team,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. “The question has been answered, and the answer is no.”

Many Republican candidates, Jacobson noted, “are asking voters to evaluate their service to the district while ignoring the contract, ignoring the national party--ignoring Dole for that matter.”

Republicans are hardly pioneers of this strategy. Democrats, especially those in the conservative wing, for years shunned national leaders like House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and presidential candidates like Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

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“Republicans are doing what Democrats made into an art form,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic political consultant. “They are saying, ‘This race is about me, my record, this district. Is there a presidential election going on?’ ”

Indeed, that is the way House races traditionally have been run. The GOP effort to nationalize the congressional election in 1994 was the exception, not the rule.

But the return to the “all politics is local” strategy will have real consequences if the Republicans retain their majority. If some Republicans run with the party program and others run away from it, a new GOP majority will have a far more muddled mandate than it had in 1994.

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There are still plenty of Republicans, particularly in GOP strongholds, running as unapologetic party loyalists. Wherever Dole goes, he has plenty of Republican incumbents and candidates scrambling to join him on stage to boost his candidacy, if not their own.

But heading into the final days of the campaign, Republican strategists suggest that many candidates may strike out on their own in a new way.

“We’re going to see incumbents running ads that say, ‘Don’t give Clinton a blank check,’ ” said Gingrich’s aide Galen, who cited polls suggesting that more Republicans would be elected to Congress if voters are sure that Clinton is going to be reelected. “No one needs to run away from Bob Dole. But in many cases, they are going to run ahead of him.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour denied this week that making the “blank check” argument amounts to pulling the plug on Dole’s candidacy.

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“Our first priority as a party is to elect Bob Dole president,” Barbour said. But, he added, “if Clinton is elected to a second term, heaven forbid, we want to make sure that he doesn’t have a blank check and that there is a Republican Congress to keep a check on him.

“There’s nobody running from Dole’s agenda, and there’s nobody running from anything else,” he said. “Most of our candidates are running on their record, which happens to be consistent with what Dole is proposing: lower taxes; smaller, smarter government.”

But in many of the swing districts that will decide who controls the House, Republicans are striking a pose of at least some distance from the rest of the ticket.

Some, while not rejecting Dole, are calculating that they have more politically productive ways to spend their time than to associate with a seemingly weak standard-bearer. When Dole attended a rally in suburban Philadelphia in September, Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) slipped out early to accept the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. When Dole was in San Diego for the last debate with Clinton, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) did not show up for the encounter or a Dole rally in his district.

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“He had a very full campaign schedule,” said Bilbray’s spokeswoman, Melissa Dollaghan.

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Some Republicans have shunned Dole’s ideas, not the candidate himself. Rep. Scott L. Klug (R-Wis.), was master of ceremonies at a recent Dole event in his district. But Klug has said he would not support Dole’s proposed 15% cut in income tax rates unless he is shown exactly how the government could offset the lost revenue.

And some are going out of their way to emphasize their independence.

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Rep. Peter G. Torkildsen (R-Mass.), a moderate who has been targeted by Democrats for defeat, is airing an ad that cites a study identifying him as the fifth-most independent Republican in the House. “I don’t care if an idea is a Republican idea or a Democratic idea,” he says in the ad. “I only care what’s good for my district and good for my country.”

Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor) has emphasized how much he has done for local interests from his perch on the House Appropriations Committee. He has highlighted his district’s interests and his departures from the party line.

Rep. James B. Longley Jr. (R-Maine), whose father was a popular governor in the 1970s and ran as an independent, is airing ads that say, “He’s still a Longley. Still independent. Still fighting for us.”

Many of these incumbents represent Democratic-leaning districts, where it may make sense to play down their party affiliation. But even Fox, whose district has a long tradition of leaning Republican, is taking that tack. He bragged to a reporter that his campaign literature did not use the word “Republican.” He touts a study showing that he opposed the GOP leadership more often than any other freshman.

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In many cases, Republicans are responding to aggressive efforts by Democats and labor unions to link them to Gingrich. Some are landing hard counterpunches. Klug has run an ad that highlights issues on which he has disagreed with Gingrich: “If people tell you I’m Newt Gingrich, you tell ‘em they got the wrong picture.”

Joe Rogers, a Republican running for an open House seat in Denver, has refused to answer his foe’s questions about whether he would vote for Gingrich as speaker if elected to Congress.

Republicans generally are avoiding mention of the “contract with America,” which is widely viewed as Gingrich’s brainchild, when they list their accomplishments. Congress Daily, a Washington newsletter, reviewed 14 television ads for freshman House Republicans and found that none mentioned the contract.

For all Gingrich’s liabilities, he remains a big draw among the party faithful and has raised $9.3 million for GOP incumbents and candidates, according to Galen.

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Galen dismisses suggestions that demonizing Gingrich will help Democrats regain the House, noting that Republicans in the early 1980s tried in vain to make gains by tarring Democrats with their speaker, Tip O’Neill.

“We invented this game,” Galen said. “It didn’t work.”

* CLINTON’S END GAME

President seeks state trophies as he runs safe campaign. A10

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* MURDOCH GIFT TO GOP

State Republican Party gets $1 million from media tycoon. A23


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