WASHINGTON — FOUR weeks ago, prospects looked bleak for the Democratic Party in Florida's 15th Congressional District, the state's "space coast" region.
Democratic politician Sue Munsey had decided not to challenge Republican freshman Rep. Dave Weldon. The GOP added another name to the list it calls "Top-Recruited Democrats Who Said 'No Way' to Running in 1996."
Enter retired Navy Capt. John Byron, a 37-year veteran who once commanded naval operations at Cape Canaveral. Now, says this life-long Democrat, he's ready to take on Congressman Weldon.
In the Democrats' eyes, newly declared candidates like Captain Byron put the lie to stories about the party's recruitment problems. Indeed, says Elizabeth Wilner, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Democratic recruitment has picked up. Early on, she says, the Democrats did have some problems luring strong candidates into races - not surprising after the massacre of 1994, when the GOP swept control of Congress.
"Now, in terms of recruiting, it's looking better for the Democrats," says Ms. Wilner, "though I'd say the Republicans still have the edge."
Most neutral observers say Republicans remain the odds-on favorite to retain control of the House of Representatives this November. The GOP begins with a 236-195 edge (with one independent and three vacancies). On top of that, more Democrats (28) than Republicans (14) are vacating their seats this year, and many of the Democratic vacancies are in the South, an increasingly Republican region. Republicans are also outpacing Democrats in fund-raising.
But Democrats can point to the "generic" congressional polls as a sign in their favor. Generic polling measures voters' preference for which party they would like to see holding the local congressional seat, without a candidate's name attached. In the 1994 elections, generic polling gave Republicans a strong edge nationwide. Now the wind is blowing in the other direction. A Pew Research Center poll released Friday shows 49 percent of voters are inclined to vote for a Democrat for Congress vs. 44 percent for a Republican.
Although the five-point gap is of little statistical significance, the report says, the latest survey shows that support for Republicans has declined in three successive polls.
"Criticism of the GOP legislative agenda and the president's improved standing in the polls now threaten prospects for continued Republican control of the House," the report concludes. "Generic support for GOP Congressional candidates has significantly eroded over the past six months."
Democrats are counting on this shift in the political winds to help blow some marginal Republicans - especially those who won last time by only a few points - out of their seats. In particular, Democrats are licking their chops over the House's 73-member GOP freshman class, some of whom won in districts the Democrats consider theirs. History shows a member of Congress is most vulnerable to defeat in his or her first attempt at reelection.
Even if some historically Democratic seats in the South have become more or less solidly Republican, Democrats are looking at other areas of the country as fertile ground, such as the Northwest, Midwest, and Northeast. Ask Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) officials who they're excited about, and they'll string off names like Debbie Stabenow, a former Michigan state senator who's going up against freshman Rep. Dick Chrysler, and Glen Johnson, the Oklahoma House Speaker who is opposing freshman Rep. Tom Coburn.
"We feel we're in very good shape to take the House back," says Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas, chairman of the DCCC, noting that Medicare, education, and the environment are strong campaign issues for Democrats. "[House Speaker Newt] Gingrich is an enormous drag on them politically. Even keeping him out of the limelight hasn't helped. His negatives are still high."
Republicans, for their part, have been predicting since their 1994 victory that, in 1996, they would reelect all their incumbents and pick up an additional 20 to 30 seats. Privately, some Republicans admit they have vulnerable members, but they don't see enough of a tidal wave building to lose the House.
DCCC officials say about 120 seats are "in play," half currently controlled by Democrats and half GOP; Wilner at the Cook Political Report concurs. Republicans chuckle that the Democrats are acknowledging that 60 of their seats could swing the other way.
But the GOP isn't taking its lead for granted. The large Republican freshman class has been huddling over strategy for how to build a stronger legislative record and to create campaign issues by challenging President Clinton to veto bills. The party has also started an "incumbent retention" program led by Rep. Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho to help freshmen learn the ropes of running for reelection.
Craig Veith of the National Republican Congressional Committee goes back to the bottom line: "They need to win every Democrat-held open seat just to stay where they are, and they're not going to win all those seats."
If there are any concerns, he says, they lie in two areas: the Clinton administration's overt intervention in races and the labor movement's decision to spend $35 million campaigning for Democrats and against Republicans.
Mr. Veith complains that the Environmental Protection Agency has targeted Republican freshmen's districts in its Earth Day ceremonies planned all over the country for April 22. Veith says he wants to make sure that Republicans are allowed to participate in these observances, to show that Democrats aren't the only people who care about the environment.
On the union issue, the Republican committee has filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, saying the unions are "expressly advocating" the defeat of a candidate for office, forbidden under federal law.