Washington — Eighteen months before the next election, the game of lining up prominent congressmen as targets for defeat has begun in earnest. The National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) has named four Democrats -- House economic issue leaders James R. Jones of Oklahoma, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, and Jim Wright of Texas, plus Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland -- as anti-Reagan, antitaxpayer "obstructionists" targeted for defeat.
The consensus in Washington is that although NCPAC may again stir up a lot of smoke and noise, at least three of the four targets will have won reelection come November 1982.
But Common Cause, the public interest lobby, is taking NCPAC began airing a series of television ads against Senator Sarbanes in the Washington media market , where they are likely to gain national attention.
"From a policy standpoint, these campaigns are all negative campaigns," says Fred Wertheimer, Common Cause senior vice-president.
"While any campaign has its degree of positive and negative cases being made, these tilt the campaign to such a negative degree they lead to negative response. They're really downgrading the whole approach to political discourse."
Common Cause is looking at ways to curb independent expenditures by such groups as NCPAC. The public interest lobby already has a legal case headed toward the Supreme Court, but it is also looking at things Congress can do.
"Common can, as part of a public financing system, eliminate those kinds of spending activites," Mr. Wertheimer says. "Our case in the Supreme Court makes the argument that there are ways of restricting independent expenditures, with public financing the key to it."
There may be a need to give candidates free TV time to respond to media attacks by independent groups, Wertheimer says.
Some experts suggest that dropping the $1,000 campaign contribution limit for individuals would dry up the fund-raising power of independent political action committees.
"That would just exacerbate the problem," says Wertheimer. "It would take us back to when people could give huge sums of money to politicians they were doing business with."
Former Sen. george McGovern, one of six targeted senators in 1980 and one of the four defeated, also worries about the poisoned discourse side of negative target-campaigning by independent groups.
"It's a question of who can command the debate," says George Cunningham, executive director of Mr. McGovern's new group, Americans for Common Sense. That group already has 28,000 members and 250 chapters and soon will form its own political action committee.
"We hope to relegate questions like abortion to the back burner," Mr. Cunningham told the Monitor. "We want to prevent the right wing from preempting the political agenda before the election gets under way."
NCPAC's actual influence in the last election is still heavily disputed in Washington.
Republican National Committee chairman Richard Richards insists the GOP's gains reflect a Ronald Reagan victory. He minimizes the contribution of independent conservative groups.
Murray Flander, a spokesman for Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, says NCPAC's attack on the senator, while much ballyhooed in the press when he was targeted along with McGovern in August 1979, has little effect.
"They didn't have any money," Mr. Flander says. "They didn't really launch any campaign against Cranston. It bore out what we had suspected from the very beginning --that they were using Cranston's name as a kind of flag to raise money. You can't launch a major fund-raising drive as they did and raise a million dollars in South Dakota, Idaho, and Iowa. You have to go into the large states, like California and New York."
Largely because of Cranston's one-sided defeat of his Republican opponent, Paul Gann, the NCPAC candidates as a group lost to their targeted Democratic opponents -- 6.3 million votes to 7.6 million -- small comfort to defeated Democratic Sens. Frank Church of Idaho, John Culver of Iowa, Birch Bayh of Indiana, and McGovern. Also targeted by the right, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri squeezed by with a 4,000-vote margin.
Although winning four of the six targeted races in the Senate, NCPAC lost by 57 to 44 in House races where it backed candidates.Its rival on the political spectrum, the arch-liberal Americans for Democratic Action, did better: The ADA split five wins and five loses in Senate races it took a position on, and won 25 to 17 in House races.
The chief impact of the negative campaigning of independent conservative groups in 1980 was to add to momentum already going in the direction of Reagan, observes Democratic political consultant Michael Barrone, author of the biennial Almanac of American Politics.
"To some extent, the negative campaigning helped the Republicans because it helped put people on the defensive and it helped to create a negative dialogue against them," Mr. Barrone says.
"It reinforced some of the basic arguments that the Republican Party had made nationally.
"In some instances it backlashed against them, because of exaggerated or erroneous claims.
"But on the whole it added to the volume going in their direction and ended up prevailing."
Barrone thinks it was the Democrats' own fault that they let the political dialogue slip into a negative direction.
"The Democratic Party was in control of the government," he points out. "Evidently, we couldn't run a positive campaign very well. I guess that says something negative about the Democratic Party, the administration, the Congress, and about political consultants -- if you want to add them into it."
Of the four targeted Democrats, Sarbanes appears to be the best prospect for dislodgment, if only because his Maryland seat has changed hands so readily since the 1950s. A Republican campaign official rates Sarbanes a "7" on a scale of 10, with 10 the "most vulnerable."
Of the three congressmen, Mr. Rostenkowski won with 84 percent of the vote in his Chicago Democratic machine-controlled district in 1980. Jim Wright of Texas survived a stiff challenge in the last election and still won handily with 62 percent. With redistricting ahead in Texas, Wright's district should be even more secure for the Democrat in 1982. And Oklahoman Jones, who won with 58 percent of the vote in the last election, also seems well attuned to the conservative likings of his home district, political observers say.