Kerry-Weld Gird For Possible 1996 Race for Senate

IT would be one of the marquee matchups of '96. On one side: Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R), a carrot-topped "ideological soul mate" of Newt Gingrich who says the GOP revolution actually started in the state when voters made him the first Republican governor in a generation.

On the other: Sen. John Kerry, a sometimes moderate, sometimes liberal Democrat more in the mold of traditional Bay State politics. Two big names. Two big fund-raisers. Two political bookends.

Though the race isn't set yet - Mr. Weld is only thinking about challenging Mr. Kerry for his US Senate seat next year - the potential of two local potentates going at it already has people in Massachusetts and across the nation buzzing. It would give an indication on where the Northeast stands on the GOP agenda and, more importantly, help shape the makeup of the next Senate.

The magic number in the early calculus of the Senate is 60: Can the GOP capture enough seats to obtain a filibuster-proof majority? Certainly, six more seats, which they would need, are possible.

A plethora of retirements among Democrats, along with two defections, make it likely that the GOP will win some desks.

Crossing the 60 threshold would make the Senate ideologically closer to its partner across the Rotunda. It may help Republicans push through the kind of legislation that breezed through the House but faltered in the Senate this year: regulatory reform, stronger legal and welfare reforms, and maybe constitutional amendments to balance the budget and limit members' tenure.

But large GOP gains suddenly don't seem as easy as many Congress watchers once thought. Several polls across the country show that voters are increasing discontent with what Republicans have accomplished, either because they have gone too far or not far enough.

Democrats' stronger field

Also, Democrats are fielding stronger candidates than expected in some key Senate races. The election is still a year away, of course, but the conventional wisdom now suggests that Republicans may pick up only two or three more seats in 1996.

"The Republicans will get seats," says Charles Cook, a political analyst in Washington. "But the likelihood of filibuster-proof gains" is waning. The last time a party enjoyed such control was from 1977 to 1979, when Democrats held 61 seats.

Mr. Cook notes, too, that his findings came before the public has reacted fully to the proposed GOP reforms to Medicare, the health-care program for the elderly. Republicans plan to save $270 billion from projected spending on the program over seven years. If premiums go up and services go down, as Democrats predict, voters may retaliate.

Since the Republicans took control last year, eight Democrats - four from the South - have announced retirement. Another seven are up for reelection.

On the GOP side, 18 seats are on the ballot next year. So far, only one is open. But three more Republicans - Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, and Alan Simpson of Wyoming - are possible. All three are old-guard moderates discontent with the often brash conservative tone of their younger colleagues.

The races next year promise to challenge popular assumptions about party regional strength.

If Weld takes on two-term incumbent Kerry, as sources close to him say he is considering, Republicans will have two potential openings in a region long dominated by liberal politics. The other would be in Rhode Island, where Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) is retiring. Democrats don't have a lock on the seat.

Weld, a social moderate, is one of the toughest welfare critics outside Washington. He has moved further to the right in recent weeks with three hard-line proposals to crackdown on welfare fraud and end benefits to teenage mothers and immigrants.

Kerry-Weld clash

The battle lines with Kerry would likely be drawn over such issues as welfare reform and privatization, with Weld playing the bold reformer and Kerry the defender against the agenda of House Speaker Gingrich.

"It would be an extremely interesting race," says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. "Weld will be walking a fine line on the Revolution."

In the South, where Republicans are now ascendant, GOP candidates seem likely to gain two seats from retiring Democrats in Alabama and Louisiana.

But two others, in Georgia and Arkansas, are less certain. And three Republican seats in the region are also worth watching. In North Carolina, Sen. Jesse Helms may face another tough battle from two strong challengers. Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina also face difficulties.

If voters reject what this GOP Congress accomplishes, Dr. Sinclair says, Democrats could escape heavy losses in the Senate next year. But if Republicans succeed, they could transform the upper chamber.

"If they get to 60, there will be a perception that the whole GOP agenda has been ratified by voters. The Senate will be more ideologically cohesive. It will look more like the Trent Lott party than the Bob Dole party," she says, referring to the conservative majority whip from Mississippi.

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