THE last time Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, Lee Atwater was three years old. Mr. Atwater, now 38 and GOP chairman, says that after 35 years of Democratic rule, ``the American people are ready for a change.'' Atwater and the Republicans may have to wait awhile longer, however, before their party's own speaker presides over the 435-member House. The Democrats hold a commanding 259-to-175 seat margin (one seat is vacant), and some experts predict it could be the 21st century before Republicans again govern the lower chamber.
Even so, a nervous tremor went through Democratic House ranks in the past few days. Republicans have chosen Edward Rollins, one of their sharpest and toughest strategists, to go after the Democratic majority.
Mr. Rollins vows to make life miserable in the 1990 election for Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, majority whip Tony Coelho of California, and a number of other leading House members.
Some Democrats are so fat and comfortable in their House seats that they ``have not been in a [real] campaign in 20 years,'' Rollins says with a mischievous smile. He offers this warning: Get ready for serious trouble - Rollins-style.
Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan's reelection victory in 1984, comes out of the scrappy, unpredictable California school of politics, where, as he puts it, ``you never see it coming.'' At a luncheon meeting with reporters, he said:
``I can guarantee you that there are going to be 10 Democrats across this country who are never going to see it coming. And in the last three weeks of this campaign, they are going to get bombarded with direct mail and everything else.''
For Republicans, Rollins's words are a call to battle. The House represents a lingering frustration for the GOP.
No matter how popular the Republican President - from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan - Democrats have been in command of the House since the mid-1950s.
So far, the problem has defied the best thinkers in the party.
But as the GOP extends its control of the presidency, the House may become the party's next and best opportunity. If the GOP can find a way to exploit public unhappiness with Congress (as seen in the recent pay raise fiasco), they could sweep into power.
Yet some party leaders caution that the road back won't be easy.
Howard H. Callaway, a longtime Republican activist in Georgia and Colorado, observes that the best opportunity to gain House seats occurs when a member of Congress retires. On average, 30 seats open up every two years. But even if Republicans won 60 percent of all open seats, they would still trail the Democrats 209 to 226 in the year 2000.
One reason the Republicans suffer so many losses in the House is that the Democrats ``cheat us,'' Mr. Callaway charges. The GOP, with 48 percent of the vote in recent House races, ends up with only about 40 percent of the seats.
With control of most legislatures and governors' offices, Democrats were able to gerrymander certain states (like California) by drawing district lines to favor Democratic candidates. Callaway, Rollins, and other Republicans promise an all-out effort to see that the lines are drawn more favorably for the GOP after the 1990 census. Otherwise, all could be for naught. As Rollins explains:
``You could take the best candidate in America and you are going to lose in a bad district.''
But Rollins suggests that his major task will be finding ways to rout the Democratic majority at the polls. And that means hitting Democrats with issues that will convince voters that they have a lot at stake in 1990.
``You've got to give people a reason to vote against somebody, particularly an incumbent. You can't just go out and run a feel-good, my-guy-is-a-good-guy campaign.''
Rollins is still putting together his 1990 strategy, but he says:
``I think there is a populist, anti-Washington feeling out there. ... Obviously this pay raise showed that an awful lot of Americans feel that Congress is not as good as it should be.''
He says target No. 1 will be Speaker Wright, who is battling ethics charges. Rollins plans to go after Wright in ways that will force other Democratic congressmen to defend him. That will put Democrats in an awkward position on the ethics issue.
Rollins also suggests that the Democrats are vulnerable as obstructionists. They talk about bipartisanship, then make it impossible for a president to move his programs ahead. He wants to show Americans that the current, divided government does not work.
``I don't want to let Jim Wright go home and convince his voters ... that [he] is a big buddy of George Bush. ... With Ronald Reagan's style, Americans thought government worked very effectively. [But] Ronald Reagan [in 1987-88] had the worst support by the Congress in the last 50 years.''
Rollins vows to pull out all the stops during the next two years.
``I promise you today that I won't steal, murder, lie, cheat, or pillage. But other than that, I think just about anything goes. And I'm going to use everything I can against every Democrat that's out there.''