Calif. incumbents wary of Republican tide



SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Freshman Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey stands at the entrance of a local Saturday morning farmers' market and greets the shoppers cheerfully. She tells them her name but doesn't bother to tell them she's in Congress or that she's running for re-election. They all seem to know her.

Woolsey's House seat is listed by Republican congressional campaign strategists as one of 11 prime targets among the 22 Democratic-held seats in the California delegation to Congress. The friendly, even enthusiastic, manner in which she is greeted on this particular morning, however, belies the notion that she could lose in this liberal district of strong Democratic registration north of San Francisco.

And although President Clinton maintains some degree of popularity here and in any event seems far better off than in many other Democratic congressional districts, the same specter hangs over Woolsey's candidacy as elsewhere -- the possibility of a Republican tide on Nov. 8.

That, says Woolsey's campaign manager, Brian Blum, may be what her moderate Republican challenger, business executive Mike Nugent, is banking on in taking her on in this region seemingly so hospitable to her. "He's trying to position himself as 'I'm not an incumbent,' " he says, "and hope to ride a Republican wave this year."

But Nugent disavows a partisan approach, selling himself in his television commercials as a man of moderation and reason who is convinced that Democrats and Republicans can work together in the House if they will just lay off the sharp ideological combat. He blames extremists of left and right for the gridlock in Washington -- and casts Woolsey as one of the former.

Unlike other Republican candidates here and around the country who are bashing Clinton and government generally, Nugent says the trouble is "a gridlock of ideology" in which compromise is the casualty. Yet he went to Washington and signed the "contract JTC with America" dreamed up by GOP conservative ideologues like House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich.

Blum suggests that this act undercuts Nugent's posture as a Republican moderate running in a congressional district with a 54 percent to 30 percent Democratic registration lead. "His signing on the dotted line his allegiance to Newt Gingrich," Woolsey's manager says, "is out of step with this district."

Nugent says he doesn't support everything in the "contract" but signed it because it calls for a number of issues on the standard Republican wish list -- a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto, and the rest -- to be debated and voted up and down on the House floor, rather than blocked by the Democratic leadership. "It opens up the process again," he says, on the assumption the GOP can make the 40-seat pickup the party needs to take control of the House.

He says a lot of Republicans here voted for Bill Clinton -- and Woolsey -- "because they wanted change, and they still want change." For that reason, he says, he thinks they will return to the party fold for a moderate like him. Another reason the Republicans think Woolsey is vulnerable is that her 1992 opponent died before the election but his name remained on the ballot, so she had a free ride. Nugent paints Woolsey as even more liberal than her district -- one of the most liberal in the state.

With half of the state's 22 Democratic congressional seats targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as possible losers, the party's chances to achieve the 40-seat gain once considered impossible rest in good part on success in California. In addition to nine targeted incumbents, there are two open seats the Republicans hope to win. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, by contrast, is targeting only two California Republican incumbents.

In an ordinary year, Lynn Woolsey would be home free as a liberal Democrat in liberal Marin and Sonoma counties. Her loss, in the face of even Nugent's observation that President Clinton's unpopularity elsewhere hasn't extended to this white-wine-and-brie country, would be confirmation that there is indeed a Republican tide in the country.

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