GOP Minority Hunts for a Win

Three seats vacated by top Democrats give Republicans a chance for some quick victories. HOUSE ELECTIONS

REPUBLICANS are on the spot. A new political season begins next month, and right away the GOP needs to chalk up some quick victories.

Three open House seats are at stake in August and September in Florida, Texas, and California. Until recently, all were occupied by top Democrats, including the one in Texas held by former House Speaker Jim Wright. All have strong symbolic value.

The importance of these races goes beyond mere symbolism, however. Experts will be watching the races to see whether GOP chairman Lee Atwater can overcome nagging problems that have kept Republicans in the House minority since the 1950s.

Charles E. Cook Jr., editor of ``The GRC Cook Political Report,'' says Republicans must concentrate on three endemic weaknesses:

Money. Millions of dollars are flowing from political-action committees into Democratic coffers, while Republican challengers are starved for cash. Republicans must somehow wheedle more PAC money for their own people.

Candidates. Republicans desperately need stronger candidates who have high name recognition and solid financial and community support. Without better GOP candidates, Democrats will certainly retain control of the House through the 1990s.

Staffing. Once the party gets more money and better candidates, it needs top-notch field organizers to run phone banks, target mailings, and conduct research on the opposition.

The special elections coming up, like exhibition baseball games, will give the GOP a chance to try new political pitches, woo PACs, and gain valuable experience for their campaign team.

All three elections also present challenges for Democrats.

In Florida, the 18th Congressional District was held for 26 years by the late Claude Pepper, champion of America's elderly. In Texas, the 12th District seat belonged to former Speaker Wright, who was driven off Capitol Hill by ethics charges. California's 15th District was represented by former majority whip Tony Coelho, who also left under an ethics cloud.

If Democrats were to lose these districts, especially the one held by Wright, it could embolden the GOP to make congressional ethics a top issue in the 1990 campaign.

Based on interviews with experts in both parties and with outside analysts, here's the current outlook in the three races:

Florida. Primary, Aug. 1. Runoff Aug. 15. General election, Aug. 29. Florida looks like the Republicans' best shot at a Democratic seat. The district's population, once elderly and liberal, is now younger, more conservative, and 50 percent Hispanic. Democrats still have an edge there, but nothing like it once was.

Democrats have a large field of candidates in the district, including former Miami commissioner Rosario Kennedy, considered the front-runner in her party primary. Republicans also have strong candidates, however, including state Sen. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born American. Experts say the GOP should pick up this seat. Says Mr. Cook: ``For years I've heard Democrats say that once Pepper leaves that seat, it's a goner.''

Texas. Open primary, Aug. 12. Runoff, if necessary, 20 to 30 days later between the two top vote-getters, regardless of party.

Republicans would most relish a victory here on Wright's home turf, but this will be the toughest of the three races for the GOP.

Pete Geren, a lawyer and former top aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D), is favored. The Texas congressional delegation is backing him, and in an unusual move, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is supporting him, even though other Democrats are running.

Three Republicans and a Libertarian are also running, including the best-known name on the ballot, Republican Bob Lanier, a physician who is regularly featured on local TV.

California. Modified open primary, Sept. 12. Runoff, if necessary, Nov. 7 between the top vote-getter in each party.

This central California district, settled by Dust Bowl immigrants in the 1930s, leans Democratic, but its politics are moderate. That could give Republicans a shot.

John Buckley, a GOP official in Washington, says: ``It is clear that because Tony Coelho [resigned] in disgrace, good government will be an issue in this race.''

Insiders say the eventual showdown will probably be between Republican Clare Berryhill, a former state senator and former state food and agricultural director, and Gary Condit, a Democratic state assemblyman.

Mr. Condit currently is the favorite, but the outcome remains uncertain in a race where one report predicts the winner may have to spend $2 million.

All three campaigns will test the political skills of Edward Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mr. Rollins, who helped President Reagan engineer his reelection triumph, has signed up for a long-term effort to put the GOP back in control of the House.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says Rollins wants ``some short-term victories to give the GOP in the House an injection of enthusiasm'' and to ``counter the current pessimism.''

Dr. Ornstein says: ``This is the 35th consecutive year of Republican minority status. Despite three presidential landslides, the party has 20 fewer House seats. There's not much in that record to make [Republican] House members feel good.''

Winning a seat in Florida, and possibly another in Texas or California, would pump that kind of fresh enthusiasm into the GOP, Ornstein suggests.

But Rollins will focus most of his energies on the long run, Ornstein says. That means focusing on ``things that are without an immediate payoff,'' like candidate recruitment.

Rollins is doing just that: bringing potential candidates to Washington, sitting them down with top GOP leaders, taking them to see the President at the White House.

Cook says that a lot of Rollins's job is ``sweet-talking'': sweet-talking PACs for money; sweet-talking candidates to run. It may take years to turn things around. But the turnaround could begin soon - in Florida, Texas, and California.

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