THE races for the next Congress are shaping up to be as strange and history-bending as the race for the presidency.
Already it is clear that the next Congress will set several records. It will have more new faces than any other Congress since 1932. It will have significantly more blacks, more Hispanics, and more women than any Congress in history.
But relatively few of the campaign messages around the country concern policy positions and party power. Instead, the talk is of cleaning up Congress itself.
And so, unlike other years of dramatic turnover on Capitol Hill, there is no clear sign so far this year of a partisan tilt or change of direction. Republicans - currently outnumbered almost 2-to-1 in the House - will probably make some gains. Some party strategists still hope to add 30 to 40 Republican seats.
A more neutral observer, political analyst Charles Cook, has given the Republicans an even chance of picking up 26 seats. But that was a month ago, before the popularity of the Democratic presidential ticket left the Bush-Quayle team in the dust.
"Now I don't know," Mr. Cook says.
The outlook for the character of the next Congress is especially critical to the Bush campaign. Since the president argues that his agenda has been stymied by Congress, his success in his next term relies on changing Congress.
Although he has no hope of actually having a Republican Congress in 1993, he can hope for one in which the Democrats are weaker.
The theme of the congressional races this year is basically anti-Congress. One of the most-used current lines in political circles began with retiring Rep. Vin Weber (D) of Minnesota, a conservative Republican who surveyed the issues candidates were running on this year. He concluded that the new Congress would be peopled by politicians who came to Washington vowing never to use the House bank (which is no longer open), run tabs at the House restaurant, or work out in the House gym.
"They're not coming here to solve the deficit and get people off the streets," says a congressional observer, who does not want to be named. "They're here to burn the place down." Referring to the so-called Gang of 7, a group of Republican congressmen who lob anti-Congress sound bites and speeches, this observer is concerned about a "gang of 107" in the next Congress.
But for all the talk of change, the candidate crop contains a lot of political experience. "The quality of the opponents has gone up," says political scientist Jim Thurber of American University, who is running a study of reform commissioned by the congressional leadership. He measures quality in terms of previous experience and the lack of "flakes of the far left and far right."
Cook, editor of the Cook Report newsletter, also sees a generally more centrist group running this year. "While everybody's talking about change and reform, you don't have a lot of outsider, grenade throwers," he says.
The Republican candidates, for example, tend to be more reticent about opposing environmental protection than past Republicans have been, he says, "and the Democrats are really not ideologues either."
Professor Thurber estimates that between 120 and 130 new faces will enter the freshman class of Congress in 1993.
The way has been cleared by a modern record in retirements from the House - 65 so far, with no more anticipated. The retirements have been driven by districts redrawn after the 1990 census, the House bank scandal, the anti-incumbent mood among voters, and new rules that make this the last year a politician can keep his campaign war chest for his own use.
The number of women who will join Congress this year still hangs on a number of competitive races. But Cook estimates that the number of Hispanic members will grow from 11 to 16 and black members will rise from 26 to either 37 or 38, depending on whether the lone black Republican in the House, Gary Franks of Connecticut, survives a tough challenge.
The last year of high turnover and a reform message was the Watergate aftermath election in 1974. That election swept in new Democrats who helped to decentralize power in Congress. This year, the new members will be nearly evenly split between parties, or at most be tilted 60-40 in favor of Republicans. So the new group will not sweep in ready to coalesce around specific reforms.
Another factor works against major reform. No set of reforms is drafted and ready for voting, as it was in 1974, notes Thurber, so new members will deal first with getting their own subcommittee assignments, after which they will already have a stake in the status quo.