GOP Strategists See the Flag Issue as a Sure-Fire Winner

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

REPUBLICANS have picked their 1990 campaign colors. No surprise. They are red, white, and blue. GOP strategists, emboldened by a new private poll, will make flag burning a high-profile issue in dozens of congressional races across the country. They say it's a sure-fire winner.

Republican candidates are moving quickly to keep the issue hot. On Sunday, Jim Dingeman, a GOP House contender, will pass out 2,000 small American flags at the annual Algonac (Michigan) Pickerel Tournament Parade. Each flag will bear the message: ``Protecting our flag. Jim Dingeman for US Congress.''

Mr. Dingeman's target: Democratic incumbent David Bonior, who led the House floor fight against a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

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Nationwide, GOP officials say the flag issue could help them in 20 to 30 closely contested House races, from Nebraska to California to Georgia.

Republican confidence in the flag issue was bolstered by a survey conducted June 18 to 20 by GOP pollster Richard Wirthlin. In the survey, Dr. Wirthlin initially pitted a ``generic'' Democratic candidate against a ``generic'' Republican. The Democrat won 39 to 32.

Wirthlin then asked the public whom they would support if the Democrat opposed a flag amendment, and the Republican favored it. This time, the Republican won, 70 to 25, a swing of 52 points.

Gary Koops, an official with the National Republican Congressional Committee, calls flag burning a value-defining issue. He says it is the kind of theme George Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 when he equated Governor Dukakis's views with the liberal values of the American Civil Liberties Union.

``The ACLU issue did not beat Dukakis, but it painted ... his values [as] being opposite [those of] the American people,'' Mr. Koops explains.

``Flag burning is also emotional. Democrats have to go back to their districts and explain to a majority of the people why - it's a very sophisticated argument - why they give more protection to a mail box than to the American flag.''

Republicans are wasting no time. In Nebraska, Republican challenger Ally Milder has already collided with Democratic Rep. Peter Hoagland on the issue. ``Flag burning is an abhorrent type of thing that should never be allowed,'' she says.

In Georgia, GOP challenger John Linder is calling for a one-issue debate on the flag amendment with Democratic incumbent Ben Jones, who was one of only two Georgia representatives voting no.

Democrats admit the issue has teeth. ``I think it's a very important issue and could be a watershed issue for the 1990 elections,'' says Keith Frederick, a Democratic political consultant.

``It is a shallow, blatant political attempt by Republicans to take advantage of an emotional issue,'' Mr. Frederick continues. ``Plus it fits with Bush's style - diversion. `Don't worry about the savings-and-loan crisis, we've got this flag to worry about.''

``Republicans see real vulnerability on the S&Ls, ... so they're opening a new front on flag burning. And you watch, they will bring back the pay raise, and tap into cynical attitudes about D.C. politicians being out of touch. I can see it coming like a freight train.''

Howard Schloss, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, agrees.

``The cold war is over, and they have the HUD scandal, the S&L scandal, ... so they divert attention with the flag.''

Democrats recall that Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas promised that the flag issue would ``make a good 30-second spot'' for TV political commercials. In a local newspaper interview, Mr. Bonior of Michigan gave what is expected to be a typical Democratic defense:

``I like the flag, but I like the Bill of Rights, also. I think to amend those rights, especially to amend them for the first time, is to amend the foundation of our democracy. ... The Bill of Rights has been the most effective protection of human liberty in all of history, and if we amend that, we open the door to possible interpretations of other rights.''

Pollsters say about 70 percent of the American people support a flag amendment. Mason-Dixon Poll, however, concerned that the issue wasn't fully understood, recently asked Florida voters the following question:

``The US Supreme Court has ruled that the provision in the US Constitution that guarantees free speech also allows flag burning as a form of political protest. Do you believe the Constitution should be changed so that flag burning could be banned? Or do you believe the Constitution should remain as it is, allowing flag burning as a form of political protest?''

Given that choice, only 40 percent of Floridians favored the amendment, while 55 percent opposed it.

Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon, says his question was crafted to get a ``thinking'' response from the public, rather than an ``emotional'' response. But he warns: ``People vote on how they feel, not how they think.''

That's why Republicans think this issue will stay hot.

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