GOP deficit fighter woos voters with federal funds. But Democrats think freshman `can be beaten' in '86

The senator with the choirboy face and prep-school background sat flanked by Democratic Party and union officials in a town where Republicans are rare. But GOP Sen. Robert W. Kasten, the conservative who often calls for shrinking the bloated government, had good news for the folks in Kenosha, Wis.

He announced the award of a major grant to retrain laid-off auto workers in the town.

``I'm pleased to be able to turn up a million, plus $200,000,'' he told the local news crews in the town, which has been devastated by layoffs at American Motors Corporation. ``It's going to help at least 750 families.''

Mr. Kasten, along with 15 other freshmen GOP senators, won his seat amid the conservative gale winds fanned by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Now facing reelection next year, these Senate newcomers are widely seen as the most vulnerable Republicans.

For some, including Kasten, that calls for exchanging ideology for some old-fashioned pork-barrel-style politicking.

So Kasten, the ardent budget-cutter, is traveling around his state telling constituents what Uncle Sam, with urging from their junior senator, has done for them lately.

``We've got to fight for federal dollars,'' Kasten told a group of workers at Aqua-Chem Inc., a Milwaukee plant that had just won a $3 million contract from the Pentagon to make water desalting equipment.

During the budget battle in the Senate last spring, Kasten withheld his support for the GOP budget until the last minute. He insisted on, and got, money for urban development action grants for his state.

The grants are exactly the kind of program he has tried to cut.

``You could argue that that's inconsistent with my voting record on the [Senate] Budget Committee,'' he concedes, en route to a meeting with a group of farmers.

Kasten says he wants deficit reduction, but he also argues that Wisconsin has not received its fair share of federal dollars. Once budget figures are set, he says, he turns his energy toward ``fighting for the state.''

According to Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders, most of Kasten's Republican contemporaries have paid close attention to the needs at home. ``They tend to have done their homework because most bumped off a guy for failing to stay in touch.''

Kasten, for example, defeated veteran Democrat Gaylord Nelson by charging that he had neglected his home state.

Kasten's chief political goal for now, he says, is ``to be on a list of relatively secure reelection prospects'' by next July, when Democrats begin pooling money to pour into target states.

He has already come a long way from his shaky start in the Senate. Like many of his fellow GOP freshmen, he won narrowly and was considered a fluke victor. Also, Kasten's Midwest state suffers from dying industries and an ailing agricultural community. Those trends could bode ill for the GOP.

To make matters worse, the Capital Times in Madison reported that he had neglected to file his income tax forms in 1977. (He blames a staff oversight.) Then a real estate business partner, Oliver Plunkett, was charged with criminal business practices and later jailed. Although Kasten was never implicated in the wrongdoing, he was left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts when the partnership fell apart. He has not yet repaid all of them.

At a low point in 1983, Kasten and his staff put heads together and came up with a strategy that revitalized his image. He led a filibuster to force repeal of a tax measure that would have withheld 10 percent of interest and dividend income.

He gained a victory and national fame that played well back home, even if he had to buck Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, now majority leader.

As he faces reelection next year, Kasten still has weaknesses. He is coauthor of a tax-reform plan, with Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, that would remove the deductibility of state and local taxes. The plan is unpopular in Wisconsin, which is among the highest tax states.

``It's going to be very hard on Wisconsin, '' said a dairy-farm wife attending an Oshkosh meeting to discuss farm problems with Kasten. ``The Democrats are using it as a campaign item against him. He better wake up.''

In fact, Kasten plays down his zest for tax reform and rarely mentioned it during a recent two-day swing around the state. But he still defends the idea of ending deductibility for state and local taxes. Wisconsin ``has to adjust'' by lowering spending and taxes, he says.

State Sen. Joseph Andrea, a Democrat, says that tax reform could be Kasten's weak side. ``You know that in 1986 [opponents] are going to refer to Kasten as the third senator from Texas,'' he says. ``They feel that his tax plan favors Texas over Wisconsin.''

Congressman Jim Moody, a Milwaukee Democrat who is testing the waters for a possible Senate race, spent much of the summer recess in the state criticizing tax reform.

He is, however, only one of a string of Democrats eyeing the race, and none has widespread name recognition. The early favorite, Democratic Gov. Anthony S. Earl, has decided to seek reelection instead. The most active campaigner is Ed Garvey, former players' representative for the National Football League. He has never before run for office.

Dave Johnson, director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, lists Kasten as among the '80 freshmen who ``can be beaten.''

The Capital Times has kept up a drumbeat of questions about Kasten's personal finances by demanding regularly that he disclose his income tax returns. Officials routinely make their returns public in Wisconsin, which prides itself on its clean government.

Kasten's mounting campaign war chest, already well over $1 million, could also cause problems. Wisconsin's other senator, Democrat William Proxmire, wins reelection every six years without raising any money.

But the longer the Democratic field is cluttered with possible candidates, the more time Kasten has to ingratiate himself to voters.

``Anybody who can get us work, I'll vote for him,'' said Roger Frankowski, a welder at the Aqua-Chem plant, during the Kasten visit.

Shortly before attending an annual celebration in Milwaukee's large Serbian community, Kasten looked over his staff notes. A memo suggested that he give his view on permitting the building of a monument to a Serbian hero on federal land. Kasten looked puzzled since he knew nothing about the legislation; he sent an aide back to the office for details.

By the time he appeared at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, the senator was ready with a brief eulogy of the slain hero that was greeted by appreciative applause.

``We're going to work for that legislation,'' he vowed.

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