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GOP fortunes shift as US economy sags

By Richard J. CattaniStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1982


Moderate Republican senators this fall could replace the liberal Democratic senators of 1980 as the political lightning rods of American politics.

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This marks a significant turn in US political affairs.

Two years ago, it was liberal Sens. Frank Church of Idaho, George McGovern of South Dakota, Indiana's Birch Bayh, Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson, targeted by conservatives, who fell victim to the Reagan/GOP sweep.

Now, it is the half-dozen GOP moderate senators, who must explain a delay in economic results from Reagan programs, who will be most closely watched.

''Several rather decent and good moderate US senators are going to have a very hard time answering the voters' question: Why should they vote Republican if it's a signal to Ronald Reagan that what he's doing is correct, and he should do more of the same?'' says Democratic pollster and election strategist Peter D. Hart. ''It's not that their own performance is dilatory, deficient. But the moderates could be the victims of the Reagan administration record.''

''Small issue'' politics of 1980 - conservative issues like abortion, school prayer - have been overwhelmed by ''big issues'' like the economy and recession in 1982, endangering moderates in less safe GOP seats, the political experts say.

Republicans acknowlege their party's moderates will face more problems this fall than conservative GOP candidates. Some think Reagan himself may be less of a burden to candidates. ''Do not underestimate that man,'' says Vincent J. Breglio, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. ''He's going to show more of an ability to pull out of adversity than people think.''

''Interest rates will be the critical variable,'' Mr. Breglio says. ''Interest rates are cutting more against baseline Republicans than unemployment is. With unemployment, you lose the Democratic vote that is less ours anyway. Without interest rates down - the prime rate, say, approaching 13 percent - even if inflation is 6 percent, we will be in trouble. A lot of our voters are 'doers.' They want to buy autos, boats.''

A Monitor survey of the 33 Senate races set for this fall shows the Democrats , on statistical grounds, potentially able to repeat the Republicans' 1980 feat of winning two-thirds of the races. This would mean, with the Democrats having 21 incumbents up and the Republicans 12, that the Democrats would hold even - upsetting earlier predictions of further deep Democratic losses.

At this stage of the race, no one is predicting the Democrats could make up enough ground to overcome their 53 to 47 disadvantage in Senate seats and regain control. Mr. Hart sees the Democrats losing one seat. Mr. Breglio sees the Republicans still able to pick up three. But gone is the Republican talk of a few months ago that the GOP would win enough Senate seats this year to lock up Senate control for the decade.

The sense in Washington is that the conservative tide has stalled.

''1982 will be a better incumbent year than any in the past decade,'' says Hart. ''From 1970 to 1974,'' he points out, ''76 percent of incumbent senators who had competitive races (the winner taking less than 60 percent of the vote) survived. In '76 and '78, it was 47 percent for competitive races. In '80 it was closer to 25 percent.''

The Democrats' objective this year should be ''slip the election,'' Hart says , that is, hold their share of Senate seats. ''Over the next two elections, the Republicans have 41 seats up, the Democrats 26 seats - 15 seats fewer,'' he says. ''In order for the Republicans to keep their majority they have to win two-thirds of the races. In '84 and '86 they're the vulnerable ones.''