WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — In a sprawling ranch house with a sparkling blue pool for a backdrop, Democrat Ellen Tauscher states her case for why this gathering of white-collar professionals should oust the Republican congressional incumbent and vote for her.
A couple of hours north, Michela Alioto packs a spartan union hall with laborers, students, and retirees who cheer her message about jobs and protecting Medicare. In this blue-collar congressional district, Ms. Alioto and her Democratic Party colleagues see an opportunity to unseat another GOP congressman.
These two California contests - one in an affluent San Francisco Bay Area suburb, the other in the scenic but economically lagging north coast - epitomize the national battle for control of the House of Representatives. These seats rank among the Democrats' top targeted races nationwide. Victory here, along with other key races in the Northwest, is essential if Democrats are to regain a majority in the House, a Democratic Party official says.
It is a threat that Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others, takes seriously. In June, he instructed his deputies finalizing budget appropriations to measure every spending decision for its impact on California.
The two northern California races are also a sign of the hard times facing the Republican Party. Both Democratic candidates have no previous experience in elected office, and they are facing well-entrenched, two-term Republican opponents. Yet according to recent polls and political observers, both contests are now very close.
The Democrats are following a strategy here that emulates one used by Republicans in 1994 to end four decades of Democratic control of the House. The Republicans waged a national campaign, using broad themes embodied in the Contract With America. Democrats stayed home while Republicans successfully mobilized their own core voters and rode an anti-incumbent vote to victory.
Echoing national themes
Alioto and Tauscher echo the Democratic Party's national campaign themes, assailing Republican incumbents, Rep. Frank Riggs in the First Congressional District and Rep. Bill Baker in the 10th, as nothing more than loyal followers of Speaker Gingrich. They accuse their foes of implementing a legislative agenda that ignores the needs of constituents.
In 1994, Republican candidates were aided by groups such as the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association to mobilize core voters. Now, Democrats are helped by an array of organizations trying to oust the Republican incumbents.
Congressmen Riggs and Baker are both high on the target lists of the AFL-CIO, environmental groups, supporters of abortion rights, and gun-control advocates. These organizations are focusing on these campaigns, using everything from television advertising to precinct walks to get their supporters to the polls.
District I voters cross lines
Riggs's vulnerability has more to do with the nature of his north-coast district than with his record or that of his opponent, Alioto. Democrats enjoy a 49 to 34 percent registration edge in this district, which voted for Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992. They are counting on this year's presidential race to increase Democratic turnout.
"This district is Democratic, and it should be in Democratic hands," says Alioto. But it is also a highly polarized electorate. Democratic voters range from counterculture refugees from the Bay Area who back a strong environmental movement to loggers and timber-mill workers who are strongly anti-environmentalist.
A former sheriff's deputy and real estate developer, Riggs ran in 1990 as a moderate Republican and narrowly beat the incumbent Democrat. In 1992, with an assist from Clinton and a strong Democratic statewide ticket, liberal Democrat Dan Hamburg ousted Riggs. But the Republican returned to office in 1994, aided partly by a campaign painting Mr. Hamburg as an environmental extremist.
That volatile history made this district a target for the Democratic Party regardless of who became its candidate. Indeed, Alioto was not the first choice of the party organization. She won praise for her energy and courage in overcoming an accident that left her in a wheelchair since the age of 12. But many believe the granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, who moved into the district only last year, is too young and too inexperienced to win. Still, Democrats have closed ranks after her primary victory, and she enjoys close ties to the labor movement, thanks in part to her family history.
Yet Alioto may have to hold on to Clinton and party coattails to win. "I haven't heard her say anything substantive on any of the issues," says Mark Lovelace, a woodworker from Arcata, Calif. "The only selling point is she's a Democrat. I'm voting against Riggs. I'm not voting for her."
Riggs's path to victory lies in localizing the race, contrasting Alioto's weak ties to the district to his own considerable popularity, which he says gives him "an independent stature apart from whoever heads the ticket."
"I can cite many specific examples when I defied the leadership of the party, best of which is my offering the minimum wage increase," Riggs says. "But on the other hand, I'm not going to run away from my party."
That approach works well with voters like Jake, a mechanic in the logging town of Eureka, who plans to split his vote between Clinton and Riggs.
While repeating the Republican mantra of a balanced budget and tax cuts, Riggs also touts his success in "bringing the bacon home." He points to federal spending in the district on everything from harbor dredging to construction of a new $57 million Veterans Hospital at Travis Air Base in the southern part of the district.
Courting Republican women
In contrast, Tauscher's prospects for victory owe more to her strength as a candidate than to the nature of the heavily suburban 10th Congressional District. Her fiscal conservatism, business experience, and strong support for abortion rights, gun control, environmental regulation, and education are a particularly good match for voters here. A self-described moderate, Tauscher even jokingly reveals that her husband is a Republican. Pointing to her experience as a Wall Street investment banker, she says, "We can and should have leaner government. We can be fiscally conservative and have a conscience."
Still, Tauscher had to make four trips to Washington before she convinced Democratic Party officials that she had a chance against Mr. Baker, an experienced conservative politician who beat his previous opponent by a 20 percent margin. Tauscher's ability to match Baker in funding, relying in part on her own considerable funds, has been a crucial factor in giving her credibility.
But Democrat strategists are most impressed with her ability to reach a swing constituency that is crucial to the Clinton campaign - Republican women. These women respond to her critique of Baker's social conservatism as being out of step with the district. Tauscher points to his strong stand against abortion rights, his support for lifting the assault-weapons ban, and his willingness to reduce environmental regulation.
"People in my district are more interested in getting Washington back under control than they are in those side issues, over which I have very small control," responds Baker. His previous opponent also tried to assail his record on abortion and similar issues and failed, he points out.
Despite the bravado, this Republican knows he has a fight on his hands. "It's going to be competitive," he grudgingly admits.