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Parties Take Cautious Route to Election Day

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Now that it’s almost over, what is it all about?

Tuesday’s election will be instantly--and probably endlessly--examined for signals about whether voters want Congress to move forward with impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. But despite a late flurry of ads from the two national parties on the scandal surrounding Clinton’s relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, very few candidates on either side have spent much time talking about impeachment or the president’s behavior.

Instead, this year’s election has produced an unwieldy, often cacophonous, but ultimately revealing look at the evolving political strategies and policy priorities of two parties in transition.

As usual, a significant number of races have been virtually content-free slugfests dominated by dueling personal attacks. And, as always, many contests are turning primarily on idiosyncratic local concerns: from traffic in the Pacific Northwest to school busing in Missouri. With voters largely contented, no single national theme has dominated the way the backlash against Clinton’s first two years drove the Republican landslide in 1994 or the recoil against the 1995 government shutdown propelled his reelection in 1996.

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But even so, broad themes and common arguments are emerging in campaigns around the country. To a striking extent, Democrats of all ideological persuasions are emphasizing the same three issues:

* Applying the budget surplus to ensuring the future of Social Security.

* Reforming health maintenance organizations.

* Supporting new federal initiatives to reduce class sizes, principally by hiring 100,000 more teachers over the next few years.

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Republicans have been less unified in their message and less specific in their agendas. But many have been calling for:

* New tax cuts.

* Increased defense spending.

* Shifting more control of federal education dollars to the states.

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Taken together, these relatively modest agendas paint a portrait of two chastened parties moving cautiously in an environment where neither has a clear advantage. If there is a difference between them this year, it is that Democrats have grown comfortable pursuing incrementalist goals that seek to only modestly expand government’s reach in areas that the public ranks as priorities. In part, they have narrowed their divisions by lowering their sights.

By contrast, with some mainstay conservative causes--such as reforming welfare and balancing the federal budget--now achieved, Republicans are still struggling to craft a message that speaks to the anti-government passions of their base without alienating swing voters suspicious of major reductions in federal programs.

“We’re like the dog who caught the bus,” acknowledges GOP consultant Ed Gillespie. “We’re in a little bit of a transition period.”

As always in congressional elections, especially in nonpresidential years, many races are turning not on national debates but on a motley array of local issues as diverse as the country itself. “It’s not one big army moving in coordinated fashion,” says Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “It’s like a series of individual knife fights. After it’s over, you count up the survivors and see who’s in the majority.”

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In Missouri, the Senate Democratic challenger is foundering largely because of his position on school desegregation. State Atty. Gen. Jay Nixon, once considered a strong contender against GOP Sen. Christopher S. Bond, alienated the party’s core African American base when he tried to end school busing. His campaign has never really recovered.

Candidates Champion Local Issues in Races

In North Dakota, the ailing farm economy eclipses almost every other issue. Republican challenger Kevin Cramer has made farm issues the centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) in a House race that Republicans are touting as a potential upset.

In some suburban districts, candidates are capitalizing on complaints about traffic tie-ups. David Wu, a Democratic candidate for an Oregon House seat, began his first general election television ad with a shot of himself sitting in traffic in a Portland suburb, saying: “This is one of the reasons I’m running for Congress . . . all this traffic!”

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And in the suburbs of Seattle, Democratic House candidate Jay Inslee has been spending three days a week driving around during rush hour in a minivan bearing a sign with his phone number and this invitation: “Call Jay Inslee with your traffic nightmare.”

Yet even in these races, candidates also are relying on the central messages that each party placed on the marquee this year.

For Democrats, the big three of Social Security, reforming HMOs and reducing class size top the list almost everywhere. Such liberals as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Colorado House hopeful Mark Udall regularly strike those notes. In a recent debate in Louisville, Ky., anti-abortion moderate Chris Gorman, the Democrat challenging first-term GOP Rep. Anne M. Northup, raised all three issues within the two minutes of his opening statement.

This convergence on message is a marked change from the last two elections, when Democrats were sharply divided: first over Clinton’s health care and crime bills in 1994, then over his support for welfare reform and the balanced budget in 1996. This year, all of the party’s big three campaign issues are items that Clinton highlighted in his State of the Union address. “We are doing a better job than ever before at keeping our guys on message,” says Craig Smith, the White House political director.

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Still, several issues Clinton had hoped to inject into the campaign have vanished without a trace--most prominently his rejected plan for new cigarette taxes and a multibillion-dollar offensive against teenage smoking.

And although polls show majority public support for the key elements in the Democratic agenda, in many races it has been difficult for the party’s candidates to use it effectively because Republicans have moved nimbly to blur the differences, especially on HMO reform.

Surprisingly, in several races social issues are providing the sharpest lines of distinction between Democratic and Republican candidates. Continuing a trend evident since 1996, some Republicans are aggressively emphasizing their opposition to a form of late-term abortion known as “partial-birth” abortion--none more effectively than Republican Rep. Mark W. Neumann, who has relied heavily on the issue to bring himself within range of unseating Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold in Wisconsin.

But this year has also seen Democrats outside the most socially conservative states--particularly Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis in California and Senate hopeful Charles E. Schumer in New York--assertively trumpet in television ads their support for legal abortion. The prominence of abortion, along with gun control, in those three races embodies the growing reliance of Democratic candidates on “wedge” issues aimed primarily at women, just as Republicans once used national defense and crime to drive male voters away from Democrats.

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After a scattered and somewhat desultory legislative session, the GOP campaign message has been more muddled.

Many Republican incumbents have focused less on defining an agenda for the next Congress than on criticizing Democrats and reminding voters about the GOP’s accomplishments in the last few years, especially the deal with Clinton in 1997 to balance the budget and cut taxes. It is a starkly different electoral strategy from 1994, when Republicans ran on a 10-point litany of legislative promises for the future, their “contract with America.”

By contrast, in the recent candidate debate in Kentucky, Republican Northup delivered powerful critiques of Democratic ideas but did not utter a single word about what she hoped to accomplish in a second term. Likewise, when Republican Sens. Alfonse M. D’Amato in New York and Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina have paused from pummeling their opponents, it’s been almost entirely to look back at achievements over the last few years, such as welfare reform.

“There really hasn’t been a driving message [from Faircloth] about what a second term would be like,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Southern politics program at the University of North Carolina.

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The brightest ideological spark among Republicans has been ignited in the Senate campaigns of three House members elected in 1992 and 1994, the high point of the GOP’s conservative “revolution.” In recent debates with Democratic incumbents, Wisconsin’s Neumann, South Carolina’s Bob Inglis and Nevada’s John E. Ensign all delivered brisk, confident affirmations of the GOP message of smaller government and lower taxes.

That fervor is shared by a few Republican House candidates, such as Pennsylvania businessman Patrick Toomey, who has based his campaign for an open seat on cutting-edge conservative issues: the flat tax, permitting private investment accounts for Social Security and building a missile defense.

Some in GOP Take Moderate Stance

Elsewhere, though, other Republicans have conspicuously moved to moderate their images. Peter Fitzgerald, the GOP Senate nominee in Illinois, has been a staunchly conservative state senator, but in his race against Democratic incumbent Carol Moseley-Braun, he has run ads touting his commitment to environmental protection, gun control and “a minimum 48-hour hospital stay for moms giving birth.”

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In the Kentucky Senate race, Republican Jim Bunning, who compiled a resolutely conservative voting record in the House, is running advertisements so focused on issues such as expanding children’s health care and the family and medical leave act (which he actually voted against) that Democratic pollster Mark Mellman complained Bunning “is running as Ted Kennedy.”

Amid these divergent approaches, many GOP candidates have turned to the themes of more money for the Pentagon, tax cuts and local control of school spending.

In a new ad, Neumann turns to the defense spending issue, echoing language from the Reagan era by accusing Feingold of asking “our pilots to fly the same planes that their grandparents flew two generations ago.”

Though the theme of cutting taxes has been diluted by the same internal divisions that prevented Congress from enacting a tax cut this year, many GOP candidates have been reluctant to directly challenge Clinton’s insistence on applying the budget surplus to Social Security first. And there is no consensus among Republicans about how to cut taxes; while some candidates, like Toomey, promote a flat tax, most Republicans speak more vaguely about tax reduction.

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The third common GOP theme is the most unexpected. Republican candidates across the country have been heavily promoting a little-noticed congressional proposal to consolidate 31 federal education programs and return the money to the states in a block grant. By contrast, fewer GOP candidates are talking about the party’s more ballyhooed proposals to test school vouchers and create tax-favored accounts that parents could use to help pay private school tuition (California Senate nominee Matt Fong is an exception on both counts).

In some races, the block grant proposal has allowed Republicans to take the offensive on an issue--education--on which they almost always play defense. In Nevada, Ensign has stressed it in his ads and hammered away at it in a debate with Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.

Another issue gaining ground in the GOP is a plan to allow workers to divert a part of their Social Security payroll tax to individual retirement accounts that they could invest in stocks and bonds. Once the exclusive province of conservatives such as Inglis, the idea is being touted this year by less ideological Republicans, such as Kentucky’s Northup and Fong.

Over the last year, some prominent Democrats had expressed interest in the personal accounts, and the White House has not ruled out the idea. But on the campaign trail, the proposal has provoked almost universal denunciation from Democrats. “Privatization of Social Security is to get rid of it,” Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings argued in a debate with Inglis.

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In the campaign’s last days, that argument is increasingly surfacing in Democratic ads, which could make it more difficult for Clinton to make any deal with Republicans on Social Security reform next year that includes the accounts.

Of course, it is unlikely that Republicans would accept any deal that does not embrace the idea. Precipitating such a standoff might be a fitting legacy for a campaign that is unlikely to provide either party with a clear mandate to break the policy stalemate that has hobbled Washington for 18 months.

Times staff writers Julie Cart in Denver, Mark Z. Barabak in Los Angeles and Ann L. Kim and Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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DECISION ’98

* VOTERS’ HANDBOOK: Decision ’98 takes an in-depth look at the candidates and ballot measures to be decided at the polls on Tuesday. Section B

* CLIMAX OF CAMPAIGNS: Senate, gubernatorial candidates trade jabs and urge supporters to search for every remaining vote. B1

* SHERIFF’S RACE: The continuing campaign for the late Sherman Block is a “macabre spectacle,” supporters of Lee Baca said. B1

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* FOCUS ON PROPOSITIONS: Proposition 3 would restore presidential party primaries . . . Hollywood embraces animal rights. A26

* TIMES ENDORSEMENTS: The Times’ endorsements of candidates in Tuesday’s election and recommendations on ballot initiatives. M4


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