In Tight Michigan Senate Race, Democrat Walks a Tightrope

Like many in his party, Bob Carr runs as a newer-than-New Democrat and gives the president a wide berth

MICHIGAN Rep. Bob Carr (D) faces two formidable opponents in his race for the United States Senate, one a conservative Republican and the other a widely known liberal in Mr. Carr's own party: President Clinton.

Like many Democratic candidates this fall, Congressman Carr must frequently quit heralding his legislative aims in order to rebut efforts by his Republican rival to depict him as a ``tax-and-spend, Clinton liberal.''

The difficulty of Mr. Carr's two-front campaign helps explain why Republicans are expected to gain a significant number of seats in the US Senate and House in the Nov. 8 election.

The party of the president usually loses some seats in Congress during elections held between presidential balloting. But for Carr and other campaigning Democrats this year, the challenges - and stakes - are especially high.

Many Democratic candidates believe they must distance themselves from President Clinton because of polls indicating that 3 out of 5 Americans disapprove of his performance.

Moreover, Democratic candidates are on the defensive because their party has failed to enact a national health-care program and overhaul welfare.

Anti-incumbent fervor

Widespread public impatience with incumbents has also apparently bolstered GOP hopes of making significant inroads in both houses of Congress.

``No matter how you look at it - whether because of anti-incumbency, or a tough year to run in, or an anti-Washington feeling - we've got more to defend now'' than in recent Senate campaigns, says Ken Klein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. The party in power has lost Senate seats in 15 of the last 20 national elections not involving a presidential race, Mr. Klein says.

The Republicans need to gain 40 seats to take control of the House and seven seats to end the Democrats' eight-year hold on the Senate. Although control of the House may be beyond the GOP's reach, the Republicans could win seven of the nine close races for Senate seats now held by Democrats, political analysts say.

Carr is pitted in one of the neck-and-neck Senate races. Since mid-August, he has seen a slim lead evaporate. His Republican opponent, Spence Abraham, logged a small advantage in an early September poll of 500 voters.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Abraham has sought to paint Carr as a spendthrift liberal marching in legislative lockstep with President Clinton.

``The elections are definitely a referendum on Bill Clinton and the liberal agenda that he and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill have been advocating in the past two years,'' Abraham told the Monitor.

Abraham repeatedly quotes a report by the National Taxpayers Union that ranks Carr as the fifth most eager supporter of spending increases among the 16-member Michigan delegation to the House of Representatives.

``Congressman Carr likes to talk a good game in Michigan, but when he's in Washington he's supporting higher taxes, more big-government spending, and Bill Clinton's crazy liberal policies,'' says Mike Hudome, Abraham's campaign manager.

But some political analysts say the characterization of the nine-term representative as a classic, left-wing liberal is off the mark. In recent years Carr has tended to break party ranks and vote middle-of-the-road on many issues, they say.

``Carr is the most conservative of all the Democrats in the Michigan House delegation, and over the years he's become much more moderate,'' says William Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a bimonthly newsletter published in Lansing.

``Carr can make a convincing case that he is really a guy in the mainstream,'' Mr. Ballenger says.

In an effort to prove his preference for the middle ground, Carr says he supported more initiatives by former President Bush than any other Michigan Democrat in the House. He speaks much like a Republican, saying his main goal is to reduce government spending, balance the federal budget, and protect workers' wages from government waste.

``The key goal here is to make sure we protect the earnings of people in our state. That means that we need to make sure the piece of their earnings we tax is spent as efficiently as possible,'' Carr told the Monitor.

Pocketbook issues

Carr scorns efforts by Abraham and other Republicans to cast Democrats as liberal extremists. Even in the affluent, predominantly Republican area of Grand Traverse Bay in northwestern Michigan, the vast majority of voters are concerned far more about pocketbook issues than about ideology, he says.

``If my opponent thinks that his opinion about where I am on the ideological spectrum is something that the average citizen in the state of Michigan wakes up worrying about, he's missing the point of the election,'' says Carr.

In a speech to the Michigan Democratic Convention in Flint on Sept. 10, Carr sought to affirm his centrist, nonpartisan stance by calling on the party to ``engage in the politics of unification, opportunity, and hope rather than the politics of division, dead-ends, and despair.''

Nevertheless, Carr portrays Abraham as a right-wing extremist and party functionary who is out of touch with voters. Abraham formerly led the Michigan Republican Party and served as a top aide to former Vice President Dan Quayle and as co-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

``Carr is trying to depict Abraham as a right-wing wacko who has never held any public office, who mouths a lot of demagogic rhetoric, and who can't be trusted,'' Ballenger says.

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