THE Republican ``Contract With America'' is moving into the public's consciousness with the sluggish might of a freight train. It's slow but hard to stop.
This momentum is good news for House Republicans, now at the halfway point of their promise to vote on all Contract items within the first 100 days of the new Congress.
On radio talk shows and on-line services, conservatives have taken the initiative on a whole range of GOP proposals: crime, welfare reform, and the balanced-budget amendment. By contrast, Democrats appear outnumbered, even listless.
``Right now, the majority of Americans think Congress is headed in the right direction,'' says Bruce Blakeman, vice president at the Wirthlin Group in McLean, Va. This Republican polling group finds the GOP is generating a more positive response compared with Democrats, more so than since the company started taking its ``thermometer'' readings.
Liberals admit they're on the defensive.
After the election, Democrats did a lot of agonizing, says Gloria Allred of KABC in Los Angeles, rated as one of the nation's top 100 hosts by the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. But ``they cannot afford to be complacent and they have to get out there and, as Mother Jones would say, `not agonize but organize.'''
Incredibly, all this political momentum is coming from a set of Republican proposals that most people still don't know about.
A month before the November election, only 15 percent of Americans had heard of the Contract With America, according to the Wirthlin Group. Since then, that percentage has tripled, Mr. Blakeman says, but that still leaves most voters unaware of what the Republicans are trying to do.
Big jump after election
According to surveys by the Gallup Organization, the Princeton, N.J., polling group, most of that jump came in the month following the election, when awareness rose from 24 percent to 34 percent.
The Republican momentum comes from the Contract's favorable ratings. Of those voters who have heard of the Contract, two-thirds or more support it, according to polls by Gallup and Wirthlin.
``I'm all for it,'' says John Millar, a corn and soybean farmer in Kirkwood, Ill. ``There definitely had to be some change in the way the government was heading.''
Mr. Millar, a conservative, wants to reduce the deficit, even if that means cutting the farm subsidies he gets. ``We may have no farm program here in a few years,'' he says. But ``most people have resigned themselves to the fact that it's on its way out anyway.''
Republican legislators also have an advantage because many of their proposals are still abstract. Specific cuts haven't emerged to galvanize opposition.
``We haven't felt the thrust of it,'' says Lillian Swope, former president of a residents council at Chicago's Cabrini-Green public-housing project. ``The things they're proposing - I think it's the wrong direction,'' Ms. Swope adds, but people in the project are spending much more time talking about the O.J. Simpson trial than potential cuts.
Liberals ready for a fight?
Liberals may be ready to fight back. Ms. Allred, the Los Angeles talk-show host, says she has become much more aggressive in taking on the GOP Contract. ``We've gone through it rather completely,'' adds Aric Caplan, executive producer for talk-station WJNO Radio in West Palm Beach, Fla. ``It's just a PR tool.''
``If anything,'' adds Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers Magazine, ``the success of the conservatives and Republicans in the November election has served to galvanize ... liberals.''
But they face an uphill battle. Mr. Harrison, who tracks radio talk shows, says 70 percent of the hosts lean conservative. That's a reflection, he believes, of the nation's conservative mood.
Support for the welfare system has dropped sharply since the peak of the 1991 recession, says Tom Smith, director of the general social survey of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. Sympathy for the welfare system always falls as the economy improves, he adds.
If conservatives own the airwaves right now, it seems they have the upper hand in cyberspace as well. On a giant electronic bulletin-board service known as Usenet, Republican discussion groups buzz with comment while some of their Democratic counterparts have no messages posted at all. In CompuServe's political-debate forum, there were 753 messages for the Republican debate section early Tuesday, only 36 for its Democratic counterpart.
This on-line debate is sharp and surprisingly thoughtful. On a Usenet group called ``alt.politics.usa.republican,'' for example, hot topics include gay rights, welfare reform, and federal funding for the Public Broadcasting Service.
``I do support the local PBS and NPR [National Public Radio] affiliates, above and beyond what is extorted from me via the feds,'' writes J. Fielek in an electronic message. But ``what the Federal government does by extracting the funding from the American public by force is wrong.''