Democrats think 2000, and smile

They hope to capitalize on public ire over trial - but need strongcandidates.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By announcing he's not running for president, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt is really announcing something else. Newly optimistic about his party's prospects for the 2000 congressional elections, Mr. Gephardt can now see himself as Speaker of the House.

With opinion polls showing the unpopular impeachment process hurting the Republicans' image, the Missouri Democrat and his party feel the wind at their backs. They have to make up only six seats to retake control of the 435-seat House of Representatives from the GOP in 2000, a feat which, if achieved, would put Gephardt in the Speaker's chair.

Gephardt has put his political protg, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island, in charge of the committee that works to elect Democrats to Congress, and he's shifted some key House staff to the committee as well.

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Democrats are also gleefully fielding reports that Republicans in moderate districts who voted for impeachment are catching flak from their voters. One, Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California, has even inspired the formation of a group called Republicans Against Campbell.

The challenge for Democrats is to recruit strong candidates and to make the impeachment issue keep working for them 21 months from now.

"The real question is, in November of 2000 what else are we going to be talking about?" asks Amy Walter, who follows House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Jay Severin, a New York Republican consultant, warns that if the Democrats spend the next 21 months chanting "impeachment, impeachment," then they'll be called "the party of impeachment," not the Republicans.

Explaining to voters

For now, though, some Republican House members have some explaining to do. Take Rep. Jack Quinn (R) of New York, a labor-friendly moderate from Buffalo. On the eve of impeachment, Representative Quinn told his local labor friends he would vote against impeaching President Clinton. Come impeachment day, he changed his mind and joined the majority.

Quinn's explanation is that, after listening to the president's testimony, he felt Mr. Clinton did lie, and that he had to vote his conscience. Still, local laborites, generally Clinton supporters, are angry. One, a Democrat, has already announced he'll challenge Quinn for his seat. The New York state and federal offices of the AFL-CIO say they'll withhold judgment on Quinn until further into this new session of Congress.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the local Democratic Party has reaped a windfall of support from Quinn's impeachment vote. "We've really had a lot of energy pledged to us from labor people who used to back Quinn," says John Hornbuckle of the Erie County Democratic Party. "People are walking in off the street, expressing their displeasure and saying, 'I want to work on the next race.' "

Among the House impeachment managers prosecuting Clinton's Senate trial, most come from safe Republican districts and can afford to pursue the trial with vigor, despite national opinion polls. One exception is Rep. Jim Rogan (R) of California, who represents a suburban Los Angeles swing district with a growing minority, Democratic population.

A recent poll for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed that 34 percent of likely voters in Mr. Rogan's district would vote to reelect him, while 37 percent said they'd vote for "someone else."

Finding a strong "someone else" will be key to unseating Rogan. Already, says Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, two prominent Democrats are "talking about" a challenge: state Sen. Adam Schiff and Assembly member Jack Scott.

"In the Los Angeles area, Rogan has become the poster boy for impeachment, and in the San Francisco area, it's been [Representative] Campbell," says Mr. Carrick, who believes California's anti-impeachment mood will seep into other races as well.

Democrats are also touting polls showing that even many conservative Republicans now believe the impeachment has hurt their party's prospects for 2000. Some Republicans discount these polls, saying they include people who don't vote. Independent pollster John Zogby, who targets likely voters, recently polled a generic congressional ballot and found that Republicans still beat Democrats by a whisker, 40 percent to 39 percent.

A matter of voter respect

Still, many Republicans aren't pretending that the impeachment is good for the party's election standing. "We could certainly lose the House," Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida told a local newspaper, while also calling on the Senate to wrap up the trial.

Mike Collins, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, says that in the long run, voters will come to respect Republicans who voted their conscience and stood up for principle in voting to impeach.

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