Battle to Control Congress Enters Final Phase

GOP gaining in House races, but Democrat majority likely

HERE'S the latest prediction - from both parties - on what will happen in House races next Tuesday: a dramatic shift in power.

Republicans aren't expected to take over the chamber outright, though some in the party hold out hope they will. But the GOP could easily come away with a near-majority that cooperates with conservative Democrats to form a working majority.

Beyond these generalizations, though, little agreement exists. When it comes to sizing up individual races, Republicans and Democrats are as split as a Lincoln rail.

Take House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington, locked in the toughest reelection fight of his 30-year House career. According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Mr. Foley is now ahead by a couple of points, back from a large deficit. Republicans, though, speak of recent polling that shows opponent George Nethercutt (R) ahead by seven points.

Of the 435 House seats overall, between 125 and 130 races are ``in play,'' says Mike Casey, spokesman of the DCCC.

Mr. Casey predicts a net loss for his party of 25 to 30 seats, though, he adds, several factors make it hard to predict. There are many undecided voters, 15 to 20 percent in a lot of races, he says. The redistricting of 1990 made many districts competitive and ripe for change this year.

Dan Leonard, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), says the undecideds are breaking toward the Republicans and predicts a roughly 40-seat net gain for his party. With the current breakdown at 256 Democrats, 178 Republicans, and one independent, 40 exactly would give Republicans the majority. The Republicans haven't held more than 200 seats since 1958 and last held the majority in 1954.

But what of the recent talk of a Democratic rebound? The incumbents, after all, recently fled Washington for their home districts to defend their honor and reconnect with constituents.

``Two weeks ago there was a blip for Democrats,'' says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. But at the end of last week, ``it hit a glass ceiling and started turning around.'' Republicans will gain 34 or 35 House seats, he predicts.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, says she doesn't know if the Democratic rebound has peaked or stalled. But she foresees a net Democratic loss of 28 to 30 seats.

Republicans are approaching Tuesday's vote with heady anticipation. Never mind that the Speaker of the House could be toppled. Now they're gunning for the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, whom they say recent polls are showing to be vulnerable. The NRCC is funding a late blitz of TV ads criticizing Mr. Gephardt's votes for tax increases and a congressional pay raise.

NRCC spokesman Leonard says other barons of the House could be toppled, such as Ways and Means Committee chairman Sam Gibbons (D) of Florida and Neal Smith (D) of Iowa.

Though GOP partisans say no Republican incumbents are behind in their races, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call placed four Republicans in its list of the top 25 vulnerable incumbents, including Ken Calvert of California, and Gary Franks of Connecticut, the only black Republican in Congress.

Looking across the national map, Republicans are expected to make their biggest gains in the South. But ``the South is the most conservative region of the country, so it shouldn't be surprising that that's where most Republicans may win,'' says David W. Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University. ``The best region for the Democrats this year should be the Northeast. And the West and the Midwest stand somewhere in between.''

On Tuesday night, some bellwether states to watch will be those with 7 p.m. EDT closing times for the polls, such as Indiana, Georgia, and Ohio. One state that Tony Blankley, spokesman for House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, will be watching for signs of any national trend is Florida.

Currently, Republicans hold 13 seats in Florida, and Mr. Blankley hoped to get up to 16 or 17 in this election. ``If we get to 18, we'll know it's going to be a tremendous night,'' he says, predicting overall Republican gains of 20 to 48 seats. If Republicans get to within a handful of seats of the majority, GOP leaders have spoken of a plan to persuade enough conservative Democrats to change parties to give Republicans control.

But other Republicans - plus, of course, Democrats - have argued that such a plan is unrealistic. Many conservative Democrats will barely win reelection and ``will be scared to come back and tell their voters they're switching parties,'' says Democratic pollster Lake.

Republican consultant Bill Greener agrees with that assessment, and adds that some potential party-switchers have ``personal animosity'' toward Mr. Gingrich and would not want to submit to his rule or help put him in the Speaker's chair.

* Monitor writer David S. Rohde contributed to this report.

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