Democrat Neas takes unusual tack in bid to unseat Republican Morella Activist's ads criticize incumbent for backing an impeachment inquiry

October 15, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In an unusual move, Ralph G. Neas, a Democrat seeking to represent Montgomery County in Congress, is running ads that criticize the Republican incumbent, Rep. Constance A. Morella, for her vote in favor of an impeachment inquiry.

Most Democrats are skittish about addressing the allegations against President Clinton, which stem from his efforts to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Yet Neas has paid about $15,000 to run more than 100 commercials over the next week on a Washington radio station.

Neas, a former civil rights lobbyist, is one of the few Democratic candidates nationwide seeking to capitalize on the impeachment issue, which was thought to favor Republicans.

"What Representative Morella has done is voted to launch a very lengthy partisan inquiry," says Neas, who says the hearings will paralyze Congress. He favors a formal censure of the president.

Last week, Morella joined all voting Republicans in supporting the House leadership's plan for an open-ended inquiry, though she says she has seen no evidence of impeachable offenses. While most Democrats backed an alternative, limited inquiry, Neas said he opposes any hearings.

Bill Miller, Morella's campaign manager, says the Neas ads unfairly depict a Congress hellbent on dwelling on the scandal.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has pledged to try to wrap up the hearings by Dec. 31 and should be trusted to do so, Miller says.

Neas' ads dovetail with his argument that Morella, while moderate in her views, has compiled an increasingly conservative record since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. Some Democratic observers suggest that his approach could strike a chord in Montgomery County, a Washington suburb with a fairly liberal electorate and many federal employees.

"People in Montgomery County are much more plugged into the details of what's going on in the federal government and the investigations than people in the rest of the nation," says Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster who has worked on races in Maryland.

Yet Neas' move defies the conventional wisdom that has led most Democrats to support some impeachment inquiry, however limited. Republican strategists say that Neas' approach shows that he is desperately casting about for an issue with which to try to undermine Morella.

"They're trying to break through their frustration that they can't talk about the issues," says Ron Reese, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Former state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Republican running for Montgomery County Council, also criticized the thrust of the ads.

"It just falls flat," Denis says. "Connie is an independent voice for Montgomery County, and she continues to be."

With recent national polls indicating that voters are almost evenly divided over the appropriateness of impeachment hearings, it remains uncertain how the scandal will affect the Nov. 3 elections.

Republican challengers have been more aggressive in playing up the Clinton scandal, seeking to press a perceived advantage in races where voters hold socially conservative beliefs.

Dan Page, the GOP challenger to North Carolina Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge, and Gil Aust, a Republican trying to unseat Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer of Alabama, have waged television ad campaigns that tie the Democratic lawmakers to Clinton.

Neas joins a handful of Democrats who hope to capitalize on perceived opposition in their districts to hearings. Former Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, who is seeking to represent a district in Washington state, ran TV ads attacking Republican Rep. Rick White for voting to hold the hearings.

In New Jersey, Rush Hold, a Democratic challenger, is running television ads that replay a ditty sung on the House floor by Republican Rep. Mike Pappas in honor of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr: "Twinkle, twinkle Kenneth Starr, now we see how brave you are."

Neas' ad is less whimsical, asking voters what they want the president and Congress to do in the coming year.

"Do you want them working to improve our schools, health care and the environment?" Neas asks in the commercial, which starts its run on WTOP today. "Or do you want them mired in the details of Lewinsky, Tripp and Starr?

"My opponent, Representative Morella, voted for an open-ended impeachment inquiry," Neas continues. "The facts don't justify an impeachment. And we can't afford a government in paralysis."

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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