Beware the 'Gingrich Factor'

THAT huge gust of wind you may have heard last Tuesday night was a collective sigh of relief from congressional Republicans, as they not only gained another House seat but avoided what surely would have been a public-relations disaster.

Republican state Senator and former Congressman Tom Campbell won a convincing victory in California's special election to fill a seat vacated by Democrat Norman Mineta, who resigned to take a job in the private sector. Campbell's 59 to 36 percent victory over stockbroker and former San Jose city councilor Jerry Estruth tracked early expectations for this race, but diverged from what private polling for both parties was showing in the weeks leading up to the election.

At one point, private Republican tracking polls showed Campbell's lead narrowing to within 5 percentage points, as Democrats pounded away at the national GOP agenda and sought to tie Campbell to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The Speaker was so unpopular in the district that GOP-financed polls stopped asking about him for fear that embarrassing numbers might make it into the public domain. Democrats argued that ''we can't afford to give Newt Gingrich one more vote in the House,'' and when polls showed the strategy beginning to work, they gloated that they were ''Newtering Campbell.''

Local newspapers were quick to point out that during Campbell's four-year tenure in the House, from 1989-93, he cast a voting record far different from that of the Speaker-to-be: pro-choice on abortion, in favor of gay rights, and fairly sympathetic to the concerns of environmentalists. This year, Campbell said the budget should be balanced before tax cuts take effect, a stand at odds with the one that most House Republicans are taking.

A Democratic victory would have been widely interpreted as a massive repudiation of Gingrich and the Republican agenda, since Campbell's credentials and record dwarfed Estruth's. But how should we interpret the Republican win? The San Jose-based 15th District favors Democrats - but not overwhelmingly. President Clinton beat former President Bush by 16 points in 1992, but Bush prevailed over Michael Dukakis by two points in 1988. One can make the case that if demonizing Newt Gingrich were to work, it should work in this district.

At the same time, if any Republican can distance himself from Gingrich, it's Campbell, who took an exceedingly independent course during his four years in the House - conservative on most economic issues but liberal-leaning on social and cultural issues.

Before the election, Democrats argued an Estruth victory would mean Gingrich was detrimental to any Republican on the ballot in '96. Now Republicans say a Campbell win means attacks on Gingrich don't work. But polls show Gingrich is unpopular, and there's widespread concern about the extent and speed in which Republicans are bringing about change, though not as much about their general direction.

What this special election proves is that these attacks on Republicans will not always work. Even GOP-sponsored polls on the race showed that the tactic, for a time, did seem to be making the race competitive. Republicans should feel comforted but not comfortable about what happened in District 15. If Democrats had succeeded in painting Campbell as a Gingrich clone, they likely could portray anyone that way. Just because they couldn't pull it off this time doesn't mean they can't do it to a more conservative Republican, particularly an incumbent.

On election night, Campbell conceded that the Democratic campaign ''moved the numbers against us,'' but said that the ''one-size-fits-all strategy,'' in the end, did not succeed. His words rang true. The strategy can work, but not in every case, and not in this particular race. In the end, Republicans gained a seat and avoided a disaster.

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