War of Words Begins Over First 100 Days

House GOP trumpets achievements, while Democrats see danger

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

YOU probably won't see a congressman's face on your next box of Wheaties, but you may want to hole up with the Simpson jury for a few weeks if you disdain politics.

As House Republicans finish the final week of their Contract With America, the denizens of Washington are shifting into the spin cycle. Republicans and Democrats, lobbyists and presidential candidates are starting a month-long publicity campaign to claim victory after the first 100 days of the GOP ''revolution.''

The war of perceptions is important. It will help determine what happens with many of the legislative initiatives from here and shape the momentum through the rest of this Congress. It is also part of the early positioning by both parties for 1996.

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Despite being the most chronicled Congress in 40 years, Republicans know how difficult it is to reach Peoria with a message. Speaker Newt Gingrich, though, isn't worried. ''This is a huge, complicated country in which most people pay remarkably little attention to politics most of the time,'' he said at a Monitor breakfast yesterday. ''The 50 percent or so that do know about the contract ultimately talk over coffee or talk at Sunday School ... and gradually it filters out.''

Emerging from self-imposed TV exile, Speaker Gingrich has returned to the airwaves in recent days, displaying a newly groomed silver thatch and a gentler image. On Friday, he will give a half-hour nationally televised address -- an unprecedented move for a House Speaker.

It is the latest indication of how completely the Republicans in the House have captured the agenda and overshadowed the White House since last November. CNN, CBS, and CNBC will air the speech; NBC and ABC have declined.

In a 110-page brief distributed to reporters at the breakfast yesterday, Gingrich outlines a GOP House budget strategy. Quoting both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the blueprint proposes ''the most significant change in American government since 1933.'' Republicans intend to completely revamp the New Deal social welfare system, balance the budget, and take major swipes at such federal agencies as Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.

''The Contract was a prelude,'' says Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania, a close Gingrich ally and chairman of the House Science Committee. ''The real revolution shows up when we produce our budget document that radically restructures government.''

Also on Friday, a day after voting on the final provision of the Contract, a broad package of tax cuts for families and businesses, Republicans will stage a reenactment of their ceremony last September on the Capitol steps when they unveiled the Contract With America during the campaign.

This time, Republicans promise, there will be more balloons and bigger slices of cake. In all likelihood, House GOP members will be able to boast that they passed all but one provision in the Contract. A day later, Congress will break for three weeks and members will hit the airwaves, malls, and firehouse pancake breakfasts across their districts, spreading the good news.

The GOP message is simple: Promises kept. The spin strategy is even simpler. ''Repetition, repetition, repetition,'' says GOP pollster Ed Miller.

''During week one of the recess, we'll celebrate the Contract,'' says Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, the fourth ranking House Republican. ''We'll drive home the significance of the change that has taken place. Then we'll pivot into an honest discussion about how to balance the budget. We'll lay out what will happen if we stay with the Clinton agenda. We'll look like Mexico if we can't make real change.''

Democrats, not wanting to be undersold, are also selling a message and claiming victory. President Clinton has emerged from behind the White House veil and has taken to the stump in South and West.

Vice President Al Gore was scheduled to give an assessment of the Contract With America yesterday at the National Press Club; congressional leaders start surfing the airwaves today. Minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri has promised to unveil a 500-day Democratic agenda when the GOP Contract is finished.

Democrats too will return to their districts, armed with charts and statistics to show that Republicans are taking food from the mouths of hungry school children to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. ''For the most part, people think cutting programs for poor kids is morally wrong,'' says Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a freshman Democrat from California, speaking on the telephone from her district. ''People are outraged.''

''When the Republicans come forward with their budget, it will be a question of: Newt's into cyberspace -- reality or virtual reality,'' says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. ''The message for Democrats is that the people who have done well under the Contract are the people who have enough money to afford lobbyists.''

Mr. Mellman says the parties are at ''rough parity'' in the polls. Which side gains the momentum, Republicans and Democrats agree, may depend on how the Senate handles the legislation sent over from the House.

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