Pa. races don't look like a vote on Clinton scandal or House GOP 3 districts in state may show if Democrats can retake Congress

October 29, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JENKINTOWN, Pa. -- Rep. Jon D. Fox is leading Bob Dole through a crowd of applauding admirers at the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center here when an excited teen-ager cries out that she just has to have her picture taken with the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Sure, Fox says. He seizes the camera, poses the girl with Dole and shoots the picture and a second one to be sure.

Is this what it takes to be a full-service congressman?

"This is my essence," Fox says. "I'm a work horse, not a show horse."

Fox's emphasis on constituent service is one of the central issues here in Pennsylvania's 13th District as the two-term Republican tries to stave off another challenge from Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat who came within 84 votes of defeating Fox two years ago in the closest House race that year.

When the campaign opened last winter, however, this was one of three districts in the state -- the others being the 10th around Scranton and the 15th in the Lehigh Valley -- that were seen as leading indicators of whether the Democratic Party could gain the 11 seats needed next Tuesday to regain control of the House.

If the Democrats could win at least two and possibly all three races here, the theory in both parties went, that goal would be within realistic range.

But there has been a lot of water over the dam since then. After President Clinton's grudging confession in August of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the issue seemed to be whether so many Democrats would stay home on Election Day that the Republicans would win all three districts.

Then the Republicans raised a different possibility with their aggressively partisan move toward impeachment: a potential backlash that would help the Democrats after all.

Now, heading for the wire on Tuesday, the consensus among Republican and Democratic activists is that both parties have suffered some damage but that the Lewinsky-impeachment issue is not a key factor in any of the three districts.

Hoeffel, however, says he detects a problem among the Republicans. "I definitely have heard a backlash among Republicans, people who say, 'I'm mad at my party for being unfair.' "

And, without acknowledging a backlash, Fox concedes that he wishes the whole matter had been handled in a way that appeared less partisan.

He would have preferred for the Judiciary Committee to adopt one of the limited alternative resolutions Democrats offered for a preliminary inquiry, thus projecting a clear picture of bipartisanship. "I'd have taken it, and I'd have hugged it," the Republican incumbent says.

Whatever the Republican unease, there is no sign of any of the Democrats rushing to embrace their president. Hoeffel supported the idea of a censure of the president -- as an alternative to impeachment -- and made a point of refusing to attend a party fund-raiser with Clinton last month. That decision was given mixed reviews by fellow Democrats, and Hoeffel concedes it might have been politically wiser to have "said less."

Hoeffel's case against Fox, however, has nothing to do with the scandal in Washington. He argues that this affluent, sophisticated suburban district needs someone who will provide leadership, not just constituent service, in Congress.

And he argues that Fox professes independence in the House but still goes along with Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is not popular here. One Hoeffel TV commercial makes the point that Fox's record of supporting Gingrich "fell" from 85 percent in his first term to 84 percent in the second.

Fox, Hoeffel says, is misleading voters by depicting himself as more moderate than he is. In a debate the other day, the Democrat said: "We've heard a lot from Washington about the consequences of lying under oath. It's a good thing for Jon he's not under oath here today. Ken Starr would have to open a whole new investigation."

Jon Fox seems unperturbed. He points out that he survived two years ago, albeit by only 84 votes, while Clinton was carrying the district by 23,000. "For me," he says "the best thing is we don't have the president running at the top of the Democratic ticket."

On the contrary, the key to this race and to the others in the adjoining districts is that the man at the top of the ticket is the highly popular Republican governor, Tom Ridge. Though assured of a runaway triumph over Ivan Itkin, a Democrat who cannot afford to buy a single TV commercial, Ridge is running a full-court press to build a margin that will impress Republicans looking for someone to fill out the national ticket in 2000.

Ridge has been in all three of these districts more than once to press for a high Republican turnout, just as Bob Dole did in the same three districts last weekend.

In the 10th District, where Republican Joseph M. McDade has retired, the contest is between Democrat Pat Casey, a son of former Gov. Robert P. Casey, and Don Sherwood, a personable and wealthy auto dealer who has proved to be a far stronger candidate than the Democrats expected.

And in the 15th, a veteran Democratic state senator, Roy Afflerbach, is trying to fend off a 36-year-old Republican entrepreneur, Pat Toomey. The vacancy here occurred when Democrat Paul McHale decided to quit.

Though there are some conflicting polls, all three contests appear to be within the margins of error. The poll-takers concede it is impossible to predict the decline in turnout that either party might suffer because of its national image.

Neil Oxman, a consultant who has been working for Hoeffel, says, "I think the three contested races here are all amazingly close."

What the races don't seem to be, however, is any kind of measure of a national verdict on Clinton or the House Republicans.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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