Voters' Minds - a Long Way From Beltway

The big issues coming out of Washington matter little to voters deciding on 1998 congressional races.

Tobacco's not hot. Campaign-finance reform is small change. The intern and the president? Doesn't matter.

As they stump through late summer, political candidates all across the country are finding out that many of the issues that have consumed Washington this year don't get much attention anywhere else.

So far, local affairs such as these dominate the 1998 election agenda:

* Managing state growth is the No. 1 issue in Colorado's governor race.

* Extending Boston's Blue Line subway is a top item in Massachusetts' Sixth Congressional District.

* Surfing - specifically, which candidate best represents surfer interests - is a point of debate in California's oceanfront 49th District congressional seat.

In 1994, and to some extent 1996, overarching national issues affected the outcome of many races. That trend may no longer hold.

"I just don't see a national referendum emerging on national themes in November," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant.

Poll figures back up the judgment that 1998 is not a year of interest in nationwide affairs.

A Pew Research Center survey released last week noted that only one-fifth of respondents said they would cast a vote for Congress based on national issues.Twice as many said their vote would hinge on state and local issues.

That's probably not good news for Democrats. It usually takes national anger to produce a big swing in the national vote - the kind that would allow Dems to take back the House or Senate.

It's not fabulous news for Republicans, either. It means they are unlikely to expand much on their 11-seat edge in the House, or get the five-Senate-seat pickup they need for a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber.

It should come as no surprise that this year's election is focused on state and city matters. Most are. As the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, famously, "All politics is local."

To which many campaign professionals would add, "except when it's not."

Big national votes can herald big changes in national political mood - as the 1994 election delivered Capitol Hill to the GOP. They can become something of a referendum on national issues - witness the big tax cuts that sailed through Congress following the election of President Reagan and a GOP Congress in 1980.

Party leaders still yearn for a 1998 nationalized vote. House Speaker Newt Gingrich vowed that tax cuts would still ignite the voters at the polls in November. Democrats, with more to gain from overarching themes, are pinning hopes on polls which show a focus on saving Social Security benefits their candidates.

But the resonance, or more properly lack thereof, of other things that have interested Washington this year should give top politicians pause.

REMEMBER tobacco? Democrats vowed that the GOP leadership's defeat of legislation touted as reducing teen smoking would hurt Republicans at the polls. So far, it hasn't. It isn't even stirring voters in tobacco country, where economies would presumably be hurt by anti-smoking bills.

Tobacco "hasn't shown up in governors' races [in the South]," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia, Md.

A backlash against national efforts to regulate tobacco might drive a few voters to pull the lever for conservative Rep. Jim Bunning (R), who's running for Senate in Kentucky, or for North Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

But Mr. Coker says a recent poll of North Carolina found only 7 percent of voters said tobacco would be the most important issue for them this year.

More practical matters predominate. "A lot of campaigns are being driven by improving education," Coker says.

Campaign finance reform is another issue where lack of movement doesn't seem to matter much to voters. Consultants say few challengers are making an issue of the fact that incumbents haven't changed the political money system.

Anger about this and other national issues could still grow as election day approaches, and voter focus turns from beaches to ballots.

"I think there are a lot of disappointments about election reform and tobacco, and I suspect they will grow in intensity as the election approaches," says Arizona pollster Earl de Berge.

And there is one national wild card: President Clinton's troubles. A few candidates from both parties have mentioned it in local races, but a survey of political pros by the Hotline political Web site found a desire to keep the issue at arm's length, as too volatile to control.

There is voter interest in attempts to place some controls on health maintenance organization (HMO) behavior.

"I think health care has potential," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

In Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District, for instance, Democratic challenger Chris Gorman is running ads hitting at incumbent Rep. Anne Northup's opposition to the Democratic Patient's Bill of Rights.

More typical is the race for Kentucky's Fourth District, a coveted open seat, where ads from both Democrat Ken Lucas and Republican Gex Williams have emphasized toughness on crime.

Then there's California 49th District - where a Sierra Club release hit Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) for being insufficiently interested in the pro-environment stance of the local surfing community.

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