Democrats' Recruiting Drive Tests Depth of '96 Support

THE COURTSHIP OF JAN JONES

JAN JONES isn't running for Congress this year. Not that people - important people - haven't asked.

Those who have called Ms. Jones, the mayor of Las Vegas, include Vice President Al Gore, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, and a handful of senators. To sweeten the deal, she says, one Democratic leader told her she could choose her own committee assignments - a rare concession.

The wooing of Jones and her reticence to run tells a tale of political recruitment - and may give some indication of whether the Democrats can retake Congress this fall.

As the battle for control of Capitol Hill begins, recruitment provides an important early indicator of party strength and political momentum, "a good thermometer of the overall political environment," as one analyst puts it. A high number of House seats are open or contestable this year, and each side is eager to show how it is better positioned to gain the majority.

While Democrats insist they are having no problem attracting good people, they have run into a few notable exceptions, like Mayor Jones, which are clearly hurting their chances in some key districts. Whether that is an omen for the fall is difficult to tell.

A decision not to run may reflect a variety of concerns, among them constituent needs and family matters. Nor is there any clear rule about what kind of person makes the best candidate. "Trying to evaluate recruiting, picking the winners and losers, is like trying to nail jello to a wall," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It is not always so easy to determine who will make a good recruit."

At this stage in the election year, perhaps the most revealing aspect of the each party's recruitment efforts is intensity. Each side claims the edge, but each side also has plenty to worry about.

A Republican public-relations blitz exploits every sign of Democratic weakness, but the GOP also feels the weight of history. The last two times it won a majority in the House it lost that control in the following election. Furthermore, almost every time a party wins with a landslide, as the GOP did in 1994, the following election tends to readjust the imbalance. This year, Republicans are defending 73 seats they won in 1994.

Democrats, meanwhile, have reason enough to be cautious. President Clinton has helped the party rebound in recent months by countering proposed GOP changes to Medicare, school loans, and environmental policies. Some 47 of new GOP House members won in 1994 with 55 percent or less of the vote.

But Democrats must defend 28 open seats, many of which are in the GOP-strong South. That bloc could prove large enough to offset a readjustment. The party is poised to field candidates in all but three of the districts whose filing deadlines have passed so far.

But in several notable cases, Democrats have failed to attract the best prospective candidate, despite heavy lobbying by Congress and the White House. This threatens the party's ability to win back seats that should be safe.

Consider the First District of Nevada. Rep. John Ensign is one of the more vulnerable GOP freshmen. The district is majority Democratic, and Jones would likely have little trouble winning. When she declined for family reasons - she has three children under the age of 16 - the party's prospects faded.

Democrats face similar problems in the First District of California, a slice running up the northern coast that is represented by another vulnerable GOP freshman, Frank Riggs. The Democrats' top prospect, state Sen. Michael Thompson, declined to run, and so dimmed the party's hopes for regaining that seat.

In one recent press release, the National Republican Congressional Committee cited 33 instances where supposedly top-notch Democrats, including state legislators and governors, declined to mount bids for office.

But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shrugs off these disappointments. In other districts, says spokesman Jim Whitney, the party has good candidates including the Oklahoma House Speaker, a former US attorney, and a former submarine commander. He expects the party to be competitive in districts across the country, including GOP strongholds in Texas, Kansas, and North Carolina. He says many Democratic challengers are already outpacing Republicans in fund-raising.

"This transcends regions," he says. "[House Speaker] Newt Gingrich is disliked by a majority of the country. With Bill Clinton doing well, we have opportunities in the West, the industrial Northwest, and the Northeast."

As much as who will control Congress, the recruitment process sheds light on the nature of public service. Though neither Jones nor Thompson seemed turned off by the prospects of serving in a minority party, both indicated that Congress does not seem the most desirable place from which to serve the interests of their constituents.

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