Rounding Up Players For '96 House Rodeo

Dems, GOP talk a good game mustering candidates

GOP prediction: The next House of Representatives will contain 20 to 30 more Republicans than the current one, pushing the Democrats well below 200 seats for the first time since 1946.

Democratic counter-prediction: Democrats will retake control of the House as traditionally Democratic districts that abandoned the party last year come home.

More than 14 months before the November 1996 elections, both parties are talking a good game. The Democrats say they've got strong candidates lined up for 30 out of the Republicans' 35 most vulnerable seats. Overall, more than 475 serious potential candidates have approached the Democrats about challenging Republicans, a party strategist says.

The GOP is hardly daunted. Without spending a dime since last November's elections, it has gained three members, boosting its majority to 233-to-201. Three southern Democrats have defected to the Republicans and a fourth Democrat, Rep. Mike Parker of Mississippi, is widely viewed as ready to switch after the August recess.

On the fund-raising front, the large Republican freshman class - many of whom the Democrats say are vulnerable - is raking in the cash. Almost two-thirds of the 73 GOP freshmen who won their seats with less than 55 percent of the vote have raised more than $100,000 each in the first six months of this year, much of it from business interests, according to midyear campaign finance reports. By comparison, only three of the eight Democratic freshmen with low victory margins have amassed $100,000.

The GOP also says it's being flooded with inquiries about running in 1996, hardly surprising given last year's Republican tidal-wave take-over of Congress. ''We're seeing Republican challengers coming out of the woodwork,'' says Charles Cook, a veteran election-watcher who follows all 435 congressional races. ''But a lot may be running for the wrong reason: Some came close but didn't make it last time. Some didn't have the guts to run last time.''

Mr. Cook's bottom line is that control of the House after the 1996 election is ''very much in play these days,'' but that the Republicans have a 60 percent shot at keeping their majority.

Cook sees positive and negative signs for each party. In ''generic'' polling, where voters are asked to identify which party they would prefer to hold their congressional seat, the parties are even - representing a decline for the GOP's generic support. But support for Democrats hasn't gone up.

IN the Democrats' 10 ''first tier'' races - those where the incumbent is considered vulnerable, such as Rep. Michael Flanagan (R) of Illinois, who mounted a late campaign last year and beat House Democratic titan Dan Rostenkowski - the Democrats have already lined up a strong slate of challengers, Cook says. But in the competitive second- and third-tier races, Cook says the quality of Democratic challengers remains to be seen.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hotly disputes this assertion. Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas, chairman of the DCCC, rattles off names of potential candidates in competitive districts that have not made pundits' lists. For example, he says, Austin, Texas, attorney Charles ''Lefty'' Morris is ''actively considering'' running against Rep. Greg Laughlin, a recent convert to the GOP. And in Oklahoma, he says, the state's speaker of the House may run for the seat held by freshman Republican Tom Coburn, who won last year with 52 percent.

Democrats have targeted the 11 Republicans who represent districts that both President Clinton and Michael Dukakis carried in their presidential races. They are also focusing on the 13 seats that Republicans took by the slimmest of margins. (Only two seats fall in both categories.)

One line of attack against Republicans will be to focus on how often GOP members voted with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who scores low in opinion polls. A DCCC study found that 85 percent of the GOP freshmen voted with the Speaker at least 90 percent of the time. The Democrats will highlight what they call votes to ''cut'' programs for the elderly, children, and veterans.

The Republicans are aiming high on their hit list, which includes the House's top two Democrats, Richard Gephardt of Missouri and David Bonior of Michigan. They're also going after Congressman Frost, the DCCC chairman, former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, and former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Sam Gibbons.

A new radio ad campaign aimed at those Democrats' districts and six others will charge that the Democrats are ignoring the looming bankruptcy of Medicare.

Republican consultant Eddie Mahe predicts his party will pick up eight to 12 seats next fall, as the Southern and suburban shift toward Republicanism continues.

But with Democratic hopes of regaining the Senate fading fast, the House at least remains a battleground.

Democratic consultant Mark Melman sees Democrats retaking the House. ''Historically, when there's a shift as large as the one we saw last year, it shifts back some in the next election,'' says Mr. Melman. ''Now people think the Republicans are in charge,'' he adds. ''So last year's anger and frustration could turn on the Republicans.''

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