Targeting a freshman friend of Newt down on the farm


VINCENNES, Ind. -- Standing on a huge bright green farm combine with Democratic congressional candidate Jonathan Weinzapfel here the other morning, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was telling local farmers why they should elect him on Nov. 5.

It was, he said, because with fewer congressmen representing farm areas like Indiana's 8th, the country needs "bridge builders" to gain support from colleagues from nonfarm districts. Agriculture, he said, "can't have somebody out there pursuing a narrow partisan agenda."

Mr. Glickman mentioned no names, but in supporting the 31-year-old Mr. Weinzapfel he clearly had in mind the Republican incumbent, 35-year-old John Hostettler, usually considered a determined partisan and loyal supporter of House Speaker Newt Gingrich among the 1994 class of freshman Republican congressmen.

In an earlier breakfast talk down the road in Princeton, Secretary Glickman told other farmers: "This race is very important to the country and to the national Democratic Party. This is one of the 10 most targeted of all congressional races in the United States, right here." It is an opportunity, he said, to "maybe send Mr. Gingrich into another job" by returning the House to Democratic control.

He went on: "I don't come here to put anybody down, but I can tell you that in 1994, there were a lot of people elected to Congress that were not bridge-builders at all." Among them, he said, was "Jonathan's opponent," who was "one of about 30 members of Congress to vote against the creation of the Conservation Reserve Program ... which has kept about 700 million tons of soil from washing away or blowing away every year in this country. ... That is not the kind of bridge-building activity we need."

Such remarks underscore that the chances of Mr. Weinzapfel, seeking his first public office, to beat Mr. Hostettler rest heavily on how unhappy 8th Congressional District voters are with Newt Gingrich and his "revolution" -- and how closely they see Mr. Hostettler tied to him.

Mr. Weinzapfel says that in 1995, Mr. Hostettler voted "94 percent of the time with Newt Gingrich" and was one of 17 freshman Republicans who voted to keep the government shut down. He also voted against a minimum wage increase and for cuts in Medicare growth, in harmony with Mr. Gingrich.

Frequent turnovers

Such votes, Mr. Weinzapfel hopes, will convince voters to return what used to be called "the bloody 8th" to Democratic hands this fall. The district earned that name by the fact it had four different congressmen in the 1970s. Democrat Frank McCloskey then held the seat for 12 years until upset by Mr. Hostettler in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

What Mr. Weinzapfel doesn't say is that Mr. Hostettler won local praise and national publicity at the time of the government shutdown last winter by bucking Speaker Gingrich on a House resolution that would have kept the government open temporarily during the budgetary war of nerves with President Clinton.

With that vote, Mr. Hostettler was insisting that the Republicans hold firm on the government shutdown and actually was putting himself to the right of Mr. Gingrich. As punishment, Mr. Gingrich pulled out of a Hostettler fund-raiser. Mr. Hostettler said he didn't want the speaker to come because it would be "tying political fund-raising to a vote."

Mr. Weinzapfel says voters here in 1994, seeing the Democrats as the party of the status quo, decided to give the Republicans a FTC chance. "What they didn't bargain for," he says, "was the extreme right-wing agenda" of Mr. Gingrich, embraced by Mr. Hostettler.

Mr. Hostettler, while usually backing the speaker and actually casting himself to Mr. Gingrich's right in the budget fight that shut down the government, also showed an independent streak at times. For instance, voting against term limits and a balanced budget amendment.

To win, Mr. Weinzapfel, without a public record to run on, will have to make the case that his opponent is indeed a Gingrich clone. It may not be easy, considering Mr. Hostettler's widely publicized break with the speaker last winter, and some of his other votes.

Better strategy

Mr. Weinzapfel's better bet may be casting Mr. Hostettler as more right-wing even than Mr. Gingrich in voting to keep the government shut at any cost. But Mr. Hostettler can argue that in that vote he stuck to his guns on fighting for deeper spending cuts, as he promised to do in his winning 1994 campaign.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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