Democratic unease sifts down from Washington In Pa., both parties test effects of sex scandal on voter attitudes

October 04, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALLENTOWN, PA. — This is another in an occasional series of articles about the campaign for control of Congress as it is playing out in three Pennsylvania districts.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Roy Afflerbach, the Democratic candidate for Congress here, noticed that when President Clinton addressed the United Nations about international economic problems last month, the speech received only modest attention in the news media. It happened to occur on the very day that Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony was broadcast to the nation.

"The story wasn't on Page 1 of any of the papers," he says. "In the paper here, it was back on Page 5."

So Afflerbach altered his own position on the Monica Lewinsky matter and urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings promptly and to put it to rest.

"What I'm hearing now," he says, "is disgust with the whole thing going on and on."

Until the Starr report was delivered and the videotape of the president was aired, Afflerbach took the position that most of his constituents here in the 15th Congressional District were not factoring the Clinton controversy into his campaign. "If there is fallout," he said, "it's what I call the unsaid fallout."

And though he called Clinton's conduct with Lewinsky "disappointing" and his seven months of lying about it "totally unacceptable," Afflerbach had hedged on what action he might support, noting that as a member of the House next year, he might be voting on the impeachment question.

Afflerbach's change of heart is one indicator of the unease spreading through the Democratic Party now that the full dimensions of Clinton's conduct have been explored so publicly.

Results of polls on how the Clinton affair may affect the 1998 campaign are ambiguous on the key point -- whether marginal Democrats will sit out the election instead of voting because of their disgust. But there are growing signs that suggest candidates feel in their bones that they should keep their distance from Clinton.

Thus, when Clinton went to Philadelphia for a party fund-raiser Friday night, Joe Hoeffel, the Democratic candidate in another nip-and-tuck Pennsylvania race, made a public point of not attending. Instead, he planned a modest fund-raiser of his own.

And when the state Democratic Party held a rally in support of Clinton in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg, most of the Democrats in the legislature didn't show up. The most conspicuous support for Clinton there came, as in Washington, from African-American leaders and labor unions.

The campaign here is one of three for House districts that are considered essentially tossups. Three months ago, before the Lewinsky story reached such noisy proportions, the conventional wisdom was that if the Democrats were going to gain the 11 seats needed for control of the House of Representatives, they would have to win at least two and possibly all three of these Pennsylvania districts.

Now, with an 11-seat gain for the Democrats no longer realistic, these districts are being watched as indicators of how the president's troubles are affecting the overall campaign for Congress. Is the Lewinsky affair enough to nationalize a House campaign, as Watergate did in 1974, or only enough to depress Democratic turnout?

In this district, Afflerbach, a 52-year-old state senator with 16 years in the legislature, is competing with Pat Toomey, a 36-year-old Republican, for the seat of retiring Democrat Paul McHale. Though each campaign can point to encouraging polls, Afflerbach has been a nominal favorite but hardly invulnerable.

The campaigns center on predictable charges and countercharges. Toomey, who runs three restaurants in the area, is a prototypical articulate young conservative who depicts Afflerbach as a "career politician" and a liberal who has voted for too many tax increases. The Democrat responds by picturing Toomey as a "nightclub owner" too new to the Lehigh Valley to understand its concerns.

Toomey, following a course advised by many astute Republican professionals this year, has avoided making any final judgment of the Clinton-Lewinsky issue on the same ground as Afflerbach -- that he might have to vote on it as a member of the House.

Another key district is the 13th, where Democrat Hoeffel is again challenging Republican Rep. Jon D. Fox, who defeated him by just 84 votes in 1996. When the campaign opened, this contest tTC was rated as dead even, but professionals in both parties now give Fox a slight edge.

This district includes many of the affluent suburbs around Philadelphia. Though heavily Republican in registration, it swung behind Clinton over Bob Dole by 9 points in 1996, in part because Republican moderates reacted against the social conservatism of Speaker Newt Gingrich and other party leaders in Congress. So the question was whether Hoeffel could rally those same voters again this year, an undertaking that seems more formidable in light of Clinton's travail.

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