GOP fears loss of control Dole's lag in polls hurts Republicans in House, Senate races

'This is not 1994'

Democrats profess that overconfidence is their biggest fear

Campaign 1996

September 08, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With Bill Clinton enjoying a commanding lead over Bob Dole in the presidential contest, some Republicans are ready to hit the panic button.

Their fear is that Dole's lagging candidacy will not catch fire and that Republican control of Congress will be swept away in a Clinton tide.

"Everybody wants Dole to get moving, and quickly," says Paul Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant who is advising House and Senate candidates. "We don't like these numbers."

The numbers heavily favor the incumbent. At least five national polls conducted since Labor Day show Clinton with a double-digit lead. No candidate in modern times has been defeated after building so large an advantage this close to a presidential election.

A state-by-state analysis of the election -- which is really 51 separate tests in the states and the District of Columbia -- shows that, if it were held now, Clinton would receive more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

One Republican strategist, privately predicting a Clinton victory, sums up the thinking of voters this way: "Clinton's not that bad. The economy's doing fairly well. Dole is pretty old. Why change?"

As the campaign for the White House enters its final eight weeks, the travel and spending patterns of the candidates tell much of the story. A pumped-up Clinton is taking Dole on in such normally reliable Republican strong holds as Florida and Arizona.

Dole, meantime, is still struggling to introduce himself to the voters and working to build support in parts of the South and West that he should have locked up by now but hasn't.

Overconfidence and apathy?

For Clinton and the Democrats, overconfidence and apathy appear to pose a bigger threat, at the moment, than the challenge from either Dole or third-party candidate Ross Perot, who has yet to emerge as a factor.

"Let me assure you, we are not taking anyone or anyone's vote for granted," Clinton said during his in-your-base campaign swing through Florida last week.

"We know the only poll that counts is the one they take on Nov. 5th."

But another poll number worries many of the Republicans whose names will appear on the ballot with Dole on Election Day. It's the one that shows voters favoring Democrats over Republicans in congressional races.

At the House and Senate level, the '96 campaign "is a battle between the Democratic attempt to make the election some sort of national referendum on Newt Gingrich and the Republican candidates' efforts to turn it into a series of local elections," says analyst Stu Rothenberg.

Odds that Republicans will keep control of Congress, which they have held since 1994, have improved in recent weeks. The change is due largely to passage this summer of popular measures to reform welfare, raise the minimum wage, and provide continued health insurance to people who change or lose jobs.

Still, when voters were asked in three separate national polls last week which party they preferred in local House elections, Democrats were favored over Republicans by margins of 4 or 5 percentage points.

Calculating the odds

The importance of these so-called generic poll numbers (which match political parties, not actual candidates) is a matter of considerable debate among the small group of experts who follow congressional elections on a national basis.

Charles Cook, a leading election analyst, writes in his latest newsletter that a 2- or 3-point Democratic advantage in the generic ballot test is enough to make it likely that control of the House would change hands.

Others, however, believe that the margin would have to be considerably larger.

In either case, a Democratic takeover of Congress -- something that was unthinkable less than a year ago -- is certainly within reach, according to independent analysts and officials in both parties.

Democrats must gain 19 seats in the House (all 435 are at stake) and at least three in the Senate (34 are up for grabs) to regain control.

"Yes, the House is in play. The Senate is in play," Rothenberg says. "It's just a question of how big a [Democratic] wave you think there's going to be."

It is by no means clear that Clinton can create a voter surge powerful enough to lift his party's House and Senate candidates victory.

But Republicans are concerned that the reverse could occur -- an ebb tide generated by a lackluster Dole performance that causes Republican turnout to fall around the country.

"Pray to the saints"

To guard against that, Republicans running in House and Senate races need to "pray to the saints," says Bernadette Budde of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, which is mainly supporting Republican candidates.

The "saints" are the cities of St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Fla., and San Diego, tentative sites of this fall's presidential debates, regarded by many politicians as Dole's last opportunity to spark a comeback.

"Dole has to be adequate," she says. "He has to live up to the limited expectations" for him as a debater.

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