US political incumbents ride to reelection on crest of economic contentment [BY]By John Dillin, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's a great year to be an incumbent politician. Millions of Americans trudge to the polls today, and a thriving economy will help hundreds of officeholders coast back into office on a tide of public contentment.

In New Jersey, Gov. Thomas Kean is riding the crest of one of the greatest economic expansions in that state in 40 years. Unemployment has skidded to about 5 percent and the state is actually importing workers for the first time in years.

In Virginia, Democrat Gerald L. Baliles has run as if he were an incumbent governor. He's invoked the name of his fellow Democrat, the current governor, Charles S. Robb, at every crossroads and whistle stop. Virginia, like New Jersey, has a sizzling economy that has been boosted by new high-technology companies and expanded defense spending.

Legislators, mayors, county board members, and other officeholders also should have the upper hand in elections in many sections of the country today.

Cliff Zukin, a pollster with the Eagleton Institute in New Jersey, says:

``These are good economic times. That's simply the major thing.''

Neil Upmeyer, a public-opinion analyst with the Gallup Organization, notes:

``This is an era of economic strength and growth. . . . Why should people change? Why should they want someone else? The sheer economics of it are there is no sentiment for change.''

One lesson from Election '85: The Republicans need to keep this happy, upbeat mood going until November 1986, when they will be fighting a desperate battle to retain control of the US Senate.

Democrats are given good prospects next year of grabbing Senate seats in Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, and a number of other states unless the economy is extremely strong 12 months from now.

Meanwhile, politicians are basking in good times.

In New Jersey, people have not seen a public mood like this in years. New Jersey is a state that has long had a dim view of itself. In earlier times, pollution, corruption, high taxes, a lack of identity, and a declining job market sent thousands of Jerseyans migrating to other states.

All that now appears to be changing. Mr. Zukin at the Eagleton Institute notes that when New Jersey citizens were asked to rate their state as a place to live, only 62 percent gave it ``good'' or ``excellent'' marks in 1977 -- well below the national average.

That began to rise by 1980, when it was 68 percent. And in the most recent poll in 1984, it was up to 80 percent.

``The state had an inferiority complex,'' says Zukin. ``Now at least it's coming up to the national average.''

In Virginia, even though he's not the incumbent, Mr. Baliles, the Democrat, has wrapped himself in the office. (A governor is limited to one four-year term and cannot succeed himself.) Baliles not only mentions his fellow Democrat, Governor Robb, at every opportunity, but he's mimicked Robb's low-keyed style on the stump.

At a recent joint appearance, wags observed that the two men even looked alike: Baliles, like Robb, had on a dark-blue suit; Baliles, like Robb, had on a white, buttoned-down shirt, black shoes, black socks, and each sported a red tie with matching black and yellow stripes. At every opportunity, Baliles reminded the audience that he had served for the past four years as Robb's attorney general.

If there is any room for surprise in today's races, it could come in the legislative races in both Virginia and New Jersey.

Republicans in New Jersey hope that with the help of Governor Kean they can overturn the Democratic majority in the state General Assembly. Democrats currently control that body 44 to 36. Victory in the Assembly could lead to total GOP control of the state government in 1987, when the next state Senate elections are scheduled.

The GOP does not have such high hopes in Virginia. Not only is the Democratic candidate for governor favored against the Republican nominee, Wyatt B. Durrette, but the party holds only a small minority in the legislature. If Republicans could add 6 to 10 seats in the legislative races today, however, it would put them within striking distance of a majority a few years hence.

Rainy, chilly weather could keep many voters from the polls in the Eastern states today; but in most other parts of the country, blue skies are expected to help the turnout.

In Minneapolis, liberal Democratic Mayor Don Fraser is seeking a third term. Nearby, in St. Paul, Mayor George Latimer also is seeking reelection. Both are heavy favorites.

Cleveland and Detroit also have mayoral races, again featuring veteran incumbents. George Voinovich, a Republican, is expected to win for the third time in a row in Cleveland, while in Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young is expected to extend his 12 years in office with a fourth term.

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