Mood swings hide outcome

November 05, 1990|By Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The 1990 campaign is ending as a swirl of conflicting currents, a far different political exercise than it was when it began. Or as Winston Churchill said in another context entirely, "This pudding has no theme."

It is true, as opinion polls have been showing all year, that there is a visible disgust with politics as usual in the electorate. But, unless all the conventional indicators are wrong, there is no reason to expect this reaction against incumbents to wipe out many of them tomorrow.

It is also true that there has been a swing away from Republicans toward Democrats in the last three weeks that has tightened contests in Texas, Alabama, Minnesota and Oregon, among other states. But whether that movement, based in part on the fairness-in-taxes issue, will be sustained long enough to affect the results significantly is another question.

In some states, the trend has been the other way because of the strengths or weaknesses of individual candidates. And some polls have shown a tick or two back toward the Republicans in the final days as an apparent result of President Bush's saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf crisis.

Finally, it is true that the abortion issue has not dominated the campaign as originally expected in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Webster decision in July 1989, principally because of the focus on the deficit, the deterioration of the economy and the Persian Gulf. But it is equally apparent that abortion rights is a cutting issue that can make the difference in some of the closest campaigns if enough Republican women cross party lines. It could be decisive in, again among others, the gubernatorial campaigns of Florida and Alabama and Senate elections in Oregon and Iowa.

In the Webster decision, the court, although it did not overturn Roe vs. Wade, ruled 5-4 that states may impose some restrictions on the right to an abortion.

The one constant in the 1990 campaign has been the ambivalence of the voters on the tone of American politics. On the one hand, they say both in polls and by their refusal to participate that they are disgusted with negative attack politics. On the other hand, they say with their votes that negative attack politics succeeds because voters are indeed influenced by the same commercials they so deplore.

The issue has never been presented in clearer terms than in the most significant Senate race of the year -- the contest here between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and his black Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt. Going into the final days, the Helms machine, already notorious for its reliance on attack politics, became a throwback to another generation by its barefaced use of the race issue.

Helms has run television and radio commercials translating rTC Gantt's support for the 1990 civil rights bill into backing for "Ted Kennedy's racial quotas bill." And Helms' supporters have launched one of those notorious "ballot security" mail campaigns designed to intimidate black voters -- despite the fact the national GOP was obliged a few years ago to sign a consent decree agreeing not to use such tactics.

The negativity question also has been moved to the forefront in Alabama, where Republican Gov. Guy Hunt also has injected a race issue into his campaign against Democrat Paul Hubbert -- and apparently has seized a narrow lead by doing so.

But the most significant change in the political context over the course of the campaign has been in the relative positions of the two parties and in the perception of Bush.

When the campaign opened, Republicans were buoyant with optimism because they were running behind a president who appeared even more popular than Ronald Reagan used to be. Some hardheaded Republican professionals believed they could reverse the historical pattern under which the party in power in the White House loses seats in the House of Representatives in the first midterm election. Other party pragmatists also believed the Republicans could gain two or three seats in the Senate, now 55-45 Democratic, and thus set themselves up to regain control when the Democrats would have more vulnerable incumbents on the line in 1992.

Now the rough consensus in the political community is that the Democrats will gain at least six and perhaps a dozen House seats. Such a gain sounds modest enough until it is put into the context of the fact the Democrats already control the House 258-176 with one vacancy and seemed to have no room for

further growth.

The outlook in the Senate also is markedly different from what it was last winter. The general outlook now is that the Democrats will add at least one and possibly two seats rather than losing ground. The Democratic incumbents who looked most vulnerable -- Paul Simon of Illinois, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Carl Levin of Michigan -- now are heavy favorites.

By contrast, there are at least three Republicans in extremely close races -- Helms here, Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota.

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