LAST year the Republican Party seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years in part by making every Democratic opponent into Bill Clinton. Now the Democrats are attempting to regain power with the same tactic, this time by turning every Republican candidate into Newt Gingrich.
Here, amid the computer-chip factories and comfortable suburbs of Silicon Valley, Democratic Party strategists are using a Dec 12 special election for a vacated seat in the House to test out their anti-Newt plan.
"Our message is - a vote for me is a vote against Newt Gingrich," Democratic candidate Jerry Estruth said in his cluttered campaign headquarters.
It is a message repeated endlessly in TV advertisements that focus their attack on the controversial House Speaker, assailing plans to cut spending on Medicare, education, and environmental protection. The Republican, Tom Campbell, is treated as a mere extension of Mr. Gingrich. "Tom Campbell: One More Vote for Newt," goes the Democrat slogan.
Gingrich's poll figures have taken a recent dive. Some Democratic strategists cite figures calling him one of the most unpopular politicians in recent history.
"The more Tom Campbell is seen as a foot soldier in Newt Gingrich's war, the worse off he is," says Jim Whitney, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, which is pouring resources, from campaign staff to money, into the race.
Democrats saw initial success for the strategy in the fall elections, particularly the Kentucky governor's race.
"If it's Tom Campbell versus Jerry Estruth, we win," says Kevin Spillane, Mr. Campbell's campaign manager. "But if [Democrats] succeed in nationalizing the election, it's a much closer race."
Political analysts say that if the Democrats can succeed in this race, it will have ramifications for the entire 1996 campaign. "The Republicans' Gingrich problem ... could become a political catastrophe next year," says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Not a representative test case
The race in California's 15th Congressional District may be a particularly poor test of this strategy, however. It pits a weak, poorly known Democratic candidate against a strong, well-known Republican, one who has a reputation as a moderate opponent of the conservative wing of his party.
And the nature of the special election is different from that of next fall's general election: There is little time to campaign, and turnout at the polls is expected to be low, giving an advantage to Republicans, who are mobilizing supporters to vote by mail-in ballots.
Aside from Campbell and Mr. Estruth a third, minor candidate is running. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a February runoff is planned.
The 15th District was represented for more than 20 years by Democrat Norman Mineta, a Japanese-American who rose through the ranks of San Jose city politics. The district was reapportioned in 1992 to include some more affluent suburbs of the adjoining 14th District, which Tom Campbell represented from 1988 to '92.
Voters here tend to be well-educated (almost 70 percent have college degrees), fairly well-off, and white. While Democratic registration exceeds Republican, district voting patterns reveal a moderate mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, supporting Bush in 1988 but Clinton in 1992.
Estruth is a former San Jose city councilman, a stockbroker, and a fifth-generation resident of Silicon Valley. But Democratic Party insiders here say he was not the party's first choice to be the standard-bearer, as was the popular San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, who refused entreaties, reportedly even from the White House, to run for the seat.
Campbell, on the other hand, is widely viewed as the strongest Republican candidate for this district. The boyish-looking law professor has significant backing from Silicon Valley executives and high name recognition. (He currently represents this area in the State Senate). Campbell combines fierce fiscal conservatism - proudly voting down pork-barrel projects for his own district - with generally liberal social stands. "He checks a lot of boxes for Silicon Valley and for this district," acknowledges a Democratic Party insider here.
Campbell goes out of his way to distance himself from the right wing of his party. "I ran in 1992 for the US Senate and lost largely because I was too moderate for the average Republican voter in the state of California," Campbell said in an interview in his Stanford University Law School office. "So they are pushing on the string a little bit to sell the goods that I am identified with an archconservative Republican agenda." Campbell's literature stresses his "Unbending Independence," insisting that "he won't bow to the party bosses or extremists."
The Estruth campaign has tried hard to link Campbell to the conservative wing of the party, accusing him of moving to the right since his 1992 Senate defeat. They cite alleged pro-life votes in the State Senate and a declining rating from environmental groups, charges that Campbell calls a distortion of his record. When in Congress, Estruth says, Campbell "voted with Newt Gingrich 76 percent of the time." A Congressional Quarterly analysis of key votes puts Campbell's conservative voting rating well below the Republican average, however.
Democratic Party officials cite results from a poll taken in mid-November that show these attacks have shaved Campbell's lead from 26 points to 12 points.
But Campbell has only recently unleashed his own attack ads and he has a substantial war chest to finance a blitz of ads in the final week of the campaign.