Taking Back the House

GOPAC chairman advises Republican candidates how to win - by conference call

EVERY Thursday night at 10 p.m. Eastern time, anyone who wants to can reach out and touch Newt Gingrich.

Actually, it's Congressman Gingrich - the House Republican whip from Georgia and political bomb-tosser - who does the reaching out via a nationwide conference call.

His audience is Republicans running for Congress and their strategists. His goal is to educate, inform, and pump up the army of Republican insurgents who aim to end the Democrats' 38-year reign in Congress by winning the majority of seats in November.

"Make sure you're factually right; don't go off half-cocked," Gingrich tells candidates before a congressional vote on economic-growth packages. "You are going to see an awful lot of Democrats vote for more spending, a bigger deficit, and higher taxes." GOP 'farm team'

Gingrich's weekly calls are part of his role as general chairman of GOPAC, a political-action committee formed in 1979 to develop a "farm team" for Republicans - first to get them into local politics; later into the House.

The Republican dream is to take control of Congress and keep the presidency, thus ending the governmental gridlock that has killed much legislation and, for Gingrich, has thwarted a grand plan for remaking America. To crack the House, with 268 Democrats, 166 Republicans, and one socialist, the Republicans must score a net gain of 52 seats.

In any other year, that may seem quixotic, but in this year of the volatile electorate, "all bets are off," says Spencer Abraham, co-chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), the party's traditional House recruitment and campaign support organization. Since 1989, GOPAC has been gunning for 1992. The every-10-year reapportionment of congressional seats and redrawing of districts, spurred by the census, always jars incumbents loose. But other factors have played into the hands of GOPAC

and the NRCC: An all-time high in voter dissatisfaction with Congress; the uproar over members' overdrafts at the House bank; and reported wrong-doing at the House post office. Blaming the Democrats

Admissions of guilt by Republicans at the House bank (including three members of Bush's Cabinet) haven't deterred Gingrich and other leaders from using the scandal in their election strategy. The bank mess is all the Demo-crats' fault, they say, because they've run the House so badly.

What the Republicans are asking voters to do, for the first time, is worry about who runs the House, not just who their congressman is. Even if you like your Democratic congressman, they say, you should vote him out because his presence contributes to the Democrats' majority (which has been in place five years longer than Fidel Castro has run Cuba, as Gingrich is fond of pointing out).

"I hope they try it!" says Les Francis, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Republicans are always looking for a silver bullet. Last year, it was the Persian Gulf war and getting 80 returned vets (to run for Congress). You can't nationalize local elections. It's 435 individual races with 870 candidates; the candidate with the best message and the best campaign wins."

Some Republicans are also skeptical. Pollster Glen Bolger calls the message "somewhat esoteric."

But Gingrich, chairman of the NRCC Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R) of Michigan, and their staffs are undaunted. Mr. Abraham of the NRCC says recruitment of candidates has been "outstanding, a huge increase," with more than 800 either running or waiting for redistricting to be completed.

Both GOPAC and the NRCC are casting wider nets for the fall elections than they did in 1990. The NRCC will target 100 seats, up from 25 to 30 last time, and will decide later in the campaign which 100 seats to focus on. NRCC target campaigns get the most committee money (up to $63,000 per candidate) and logistical support.

GOPAC is shooting for even more - 170 seats (and so far has candidates for 140 of them). But it offers less money. GOPAC's budget is $3.5 million a year, compared with NRCC's projected operating budget of between $16 million and $17 million for this election cycle. The difference between the two is style, says Rep. Scott Klug (R) of Wisconsin. He says NRCC is more of a "button-down" organization that judges a campaign by "Washington standards," e.g., by how much money it has in the bank. "GOPAC has mo re of a can-do attitude and is willing to take a role of the dice on long-shot races," he says. Mr. Klug should know. Two years ago, he was a GOPAC-er, a television anchor with no political experience and a low budget ($165,000) who successfully challenged the powerful but complacent Rep. Robert Kastenmeier.

Klug started out with the advantage of name recognition, but he also learned how to make the most of every campaign dollar. One trick, he says, is to use local pollsters, which go for $2,500 to $5,000 per poll rather than a Washington firm's price tag of $10,000.

Klug is now a "teacher" in the GOPAC "teleconference training school," which features telephone courses with names like "Listen, Learn, Help, Lead" and "Media in a Challenger Campaign," Klug's offering.

This year, there are roughly 550 candidates in the GOPAC course, says executive director Jeff Eisenach. He calls GOPAC a "grand experiment, the Bell Labs of the Republican Party." When the PAC was formed in 1979 by former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont, it was a cash-to-candidates operation. Under Gingrich, it has taken on his personality, growing increasingly activist. GOPAC supports any Republican who wants to run, regardless of his or her views on such tough issues as abortion. Lifelong goal

For Gingrich, there is a personal agenda: His stated goal in life is to become speaker of the House. But does he also aim to populate the House with people like him?

"This is not training in how to be like Newt, which probably wouldn't be successful for most people," says Mr. Eisenach. "It's about training people to convey a message of governing conservatism, and do that with words and language." First of two articles. Next: Democrats' strategy for keeping the House.

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