Bush's Low Poll Ratings Sour Congressional Races

Aides' forecast that `Boll Weevils' will vote with GOP is in doubt

THE White House domestic policy czar, Clayton Yeutter, explained once again in the West Wing press room this week how Capitol Hill Democrats have bottled up the president's economic agenda.

So would a second Bush term be any different? Mr. Yeutter argues that the difference next time will be a new Congress - not a majority Republican Congress, but nevertheless one with which Bush has more leverage.

Although Congress will still be mostly Democratic, he predicts that "we'll be able to use a Boll Weevil strategy for de facto control of the House."

But that vision, like the president's approval ratings, is on the skids at the moment. In the month since the Democrats held their convention, the prospects for Republican House and Senate candidates has taken a noticeable turn for the worse.

A Bush Boll Weevil strategy means Republicans gain just enough seats in the House so that conservative, mostly Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats can join them in a working majority to pass the president's programs.

For a Boll Weevil strategy to work for Bush, at least 25 Republicans must be added to the 166 now in the House, according to political analysts.

A few months ago, that was considered an easy target for the GOP to reach. Now, however, it has become a close call.

Dave Mason of the conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, now predicts that Republicans will gain a little more than 20 House seats. The Boll Weevil scenario "is not out of the realm of possibility," he says, "but right now it doesn't look likely."

The strongest theme in these elections is still voter anger against incumbents in general, but in recent weeks, it has shown some anti-Republican edge.

"Almost anywhere I go in Senate and House races," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, Republicans are dropping.

The convention created a more upbeat view of the Democratic Party, he says, and people are increasingly associating Republicans with the economic frustrations of the Bush administration.

Republican pollster Glen Bolger has seen it, too. "Strong candidates can still win," he says. But in closer races, he says, President Bush is showing negative coattails for Republicans.

"We'll know in another two weeks if it's a lasting phenomenon," he adds.

Buttressing the theme, Gallup released a national poll last week showing that 56 percent of American voters preferred Democrats in Congress over Republicans.

The same poll question, asked last April, found voters nearly evenly split.

Roy Behr, the campaign manager for Jane Harman, a Democrat running for an open House seat in a majority Republican district in southern California, points to a more local sign. The registration advantage of Republicans has dropped from 13,000 in April to less than 10,000 last week without any organized effort behind it, he says.

Still another sign of Republican troubles is the decided lack of zeal among GOP members of Congress for their own national convention next week.

A Congressional Quarterly survey of the 43 Republican senators found that 15 do not plan to attend the Houston convention and another 12 will stop in for only a day or two. In a USA Today survey of the 166 GOP House members, 70 were opting out of the convention.

THE last time a Boll Weevil strategy worked was for a brief time in 1981 and 1982 when Ronald Reagan was leading a tax-cutting crusade.

"It's pretty exceptional," says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist who studies presidential influence on Congress. "Ronald Reagan was able to rely on it for a few months, after an assassination attempt."

In addition, the economy was perceived to be in more desperate straits then than now and Reagan was perceived to hold a strong mandate to try a supply side, tax-cutting strategy.

Mr. Reagan had three things that forged a majority coalition, says Harvard political scientist Mark Peterson:

* A very strong campaign message on cutting taxes that defeated an incumbent administration.

* 189 House Republicans and a large group of Democrats also ready to cut taxes.

* Republican control of the Senate.

Rarely do second-term presidents win with a clear mandate, and Bush did not even have this when he won his first term, notes Dr. Edwards.

Part of Reagan's Boll Weevil strategy was his compelling vision, says Mr. Mason of the Heritage Foundation.

"It's very hard to see that sort of a simple message coming out of this election," says Dr. Peterson.

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