Los Angeles — While voters focus on the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988, Republicans are already plotting strategy for another landmark struggle, in 1992. At stake: the Democratic Party's 34-year, unbroken command of the US House of Representatives.
Skirmishing over that election has already broken out in Washington, D.C., and here in California. Some political experts say that in the long run, the contest for control of the House in November 1992, could be as important to the nation's future as the current race for the presidency.
The reasons GOP strategists dream about recapturing the House in the 1990s for the first time since President Eisenhower's first term: congressional redistricting after the 1990 census, and a growing perception that the House, under Democratic domination, has become flabby.
House Democrats, entrenched by money, power, and prominence, will be difficult to blast out of their Capitol Hill bunkers. Few Democratic members are defeated anymore, and election to the House has become tantamount to a guarantee of lifetime employment.
Republicans have been out of power so long that today, no current Republican member of the House has ever served when the GOP was in the majority.
Now, they believe, there is hope for a comeback.
Republicans are turning to the courts, to the news media, and to the 1990 census for help in ousting the Democrats.
There have already been setbacks. In California, the GOP recently lost a legal effort to overturn California's eight-year-old districting plan, which Republicans charge was designed to give Democrats the lion's share of House seats from this state. A lower court threw out the suit - but it was a split decision, and the GOP has appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Republicans are waging a campaign to undermine confidence in the Democratic House leadership.
A prime target is Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, Mr. Wright's most vocal critic, has been joined by Common Cause in raising questions about Wright's ethics.
Other Republicans, led by minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois, accuse Democrats of reducing the amount of substantive work done in Congress during the past 10 years, despite an increase in staff.
Mr. Michel says the number of committee hearings, for example, has declined from 3,937 in 1978 to 2,297 in 1986. The number of bills reported over the same period dropped by 39 percent. The number of bills passed without prior investigatory hearings increased sharply.
Ten years ago, only 10 percent of the bills passed by the House were commemorative - declaring National Secretaries Week, for instance. Today, hundreds of commemorative bills - designed to help congressmen back home with their reelection campaigns - are passed, and comprise 44.9 percent of the House's output.
Republicans like Mr. Gingrich argue that unbroken Democratic domination leads to corruption, unethical behavior, political back-scratching, and institutional rigidity that must be challenged.
Republicans hope such rhetoric creates a climate for change. Yet it is the 1990 census that gives the GOP its greatest cause for optimism.
Charles E. Cook Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report, says: ``I think that the Republicans are going to be a lot stronger after 1992. I think we are going to see a more competitive House.''
Mr. Cook observes that the 1990 census will shift seats from traditionally Democratic states, in the East and North, to states where Republicans are gaining support, primarily in the Sunbelt.
Texas and Florida - both hotbeds of Republican growth - as well as California are each expected to gain several House members as a result of the 1990 census. Most of those new members are expected to be Republicans.
The party should get an additional boost in California, where the Republican governor vows to head off any redistricting plan that favors Democrats.
The present district lines, designed by Democrats in the early 1980s, helped the party get 60 percent of California's House seats without winning a majority of the votes statewide.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee, says of the current district lines: ``Some districts in California were so blatantly [the result of] gerrymandering that they look like modern art.''
Despite high hopes for the 1990s, Republicans have little chance of improving their position in the House in this year's elections.
The current balance is 254 Democrats and 178 Republicans, with three vacancies previously held by Democrats. Republicans need a switch of 40 seats to take control. Mr. Cook expects no gain in 1988 by either party.
But Cook predicts that in 1992 Republicans will pick up from 12 to 20 seats just because of the census. Using the most optimistic numbers, that means the GOP could take control by winning only 20 additional seats - a goal that should be within reach in a presidential campaign year.
But it wouldn't take a switch that big to bring about an ideological change. Even with the huge Democratic majority now in power, Cook estimates that the party's ideological margin is no more than 10 seats. Reapportionment alone should be enough to put a Republican-Southern Democratic coalition in ideological control of the House on issues such as funding the Nicaraguan contras.