Democrats Swing Back With Warning of Red Ink

BY this evening in at least 10 states, new television ads should be on the air touting the agenda Republicans have promised to promote if they take over the House and Senate next year.

The twist is that the commercials were produced by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is spending $2 million to place them in states with tight congressional races.

The Democrats are casting the Republican ``Contract with America'' - signed by more than 300 GOP candidates late last month - as a return to the deficit-soaked Reagan years.

The Democrats are taking the gamble that voters do not remember the 1980s and Reaganomics pleasantly.

``I don't think that most middle-class and working families look on the '80s with any great fondness,'' said Democratic Party chairman David Wilhelm on Wednesday.

The Democrats are taking a risk even by introducing national themes to races that Democratic candidates have desperately been trying to keep local, since voters have low regard these days for President Clinton or the nation's direction.

But the party's prospects are low enough these days to summon forth strong measures. A Times Mirror poll released yesterday showed dramatic slippage in just the past month in the number of registered voters who intend to vote Democratic on Nov. 8.

As of this month, only 40 percent of voters intend to vote Democratic while 52 percent intend to vote Republican. The two parties were nearly even on the same question as recently as last month. Republican scores have been steadily improving since July.

If the current survey results translate into votes next month, it will be the first time in modern politics that the GOP has carried the overall popular vote in mid-term congressional elections, according to the Times Mirror analysis.

So far, the Republicans have been working to connect their races to national dissatisfactions. Now the Democrats have finally decided to bring a partisan, national edge to the campaign themselves.

President Clinton is maintaining a busy campaign schedule over the next month, including some events for candidates such as Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Virginia who have not been eager to be associated with Clinton.

The new commercials funded by the Democratic National Committee will run for the next two weeks in states in every region of the country, says Mr. Wilhelm. The intention is to take the Republican ``Contract with America'' seriously as a governing agenda and draw a sharp distinction with the Democratic agenda.

``This is politics at its best,'' says Wilhelm.

A commercial typical of the four the DNC has produced shows slow-motion footage of House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia approaching the podium before more than 300 fellow Republican candidates, cutting to shots of the candidates signing the ``contract'' in groups. The voice-over cites ``huge tax cuts for the wealthy, billions in defense increases, a trillion dollars in promises.'' All to be paid for, the commercial says, with ``devastating cuts in Medicare'' and ``deficits out of control.'' In sum, ``a return to the Reagan years.''

The problem is that Ronald Reagan's name is not exactly mud with American voters. Polls show him to be the best-regarded president of the last two decades, with Clinton near the bottom. The Reagan-Bush years oversaw the longest peacetime expansion of the economy on record.

But the Democrats are betting that most voters felt left behind in those years, which were also a time of stagnating wages and a shift of the tax burden from the rich toward middle-income families, not to mention vast growth in the deficit.

The Republican contract, which promises that a roll-call vote on each of 10 issues within 100 days of achieving a Republican majority, includes tax cuts for the rich in the form of lower taxes on capital gains. But it also includes tax cuts for families with children and Social Security recipients. It also includes a new defense buildup.

Even using the Republicans' own estimates - which predict a no-cost defense buildup, for example - the ``contract'' would add $147.9 billion to the deficit over five years.

Nonpartisan anti-deficit groups affirm that the GOP agenda would expand deficits. Martha Phillips of the Concord Coalition says of the contract signers: ``This is not a group that believes in deficit reduction.''

Republican leaders have offered a list of spending cuts, as well, but left them outside of their contract. The list includes more than $40 billion of Medicare cuts (over five years). Many of the proposed cuts on the list are ``quite plausible,'' says Ms. Phillips. But the list also includes evasions such as $28 billion in savings specified only as ``general overhead reductions.''

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