After Budget Deal, Party Focus Shifts to 1998 Vote

Democrats running hard to win back the House; GOP seeks to widen its margin

In politics, a week can seem like an eternity.

And for the GOP, that's not a bad thing. Just a week ago, Washington natterers - including some Republicans - were speculating that the GOP's palace intrigues could cost the party control of the House in the November 1998 elections.

Now, with a historic budget-and-tax agreement under their belts, Washington incumbents are breathing a little easier. It's almost like a rerun of last fall, when the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress decided to cut deals and look like leaders. The voters rewarded them with reelection.

But even if the Republicans have regained their balance a bit, the 1998 elections remain a live issue. The Senate, neutral analysts agree, will almost certainly remain in Republican control; the GOP may well expand on its 55-to-45 majority by a seat or two.

The House is a different story. The Republicans control that chamber by a razor-thin majority, 228 to 206, with one independent who sides with the Democrats. And if the GOP House leadership resumes its internecine battling, Republican voters may get discouraged and stay home in 1998, some GOP analysts worry.

On the flip side, says Charles Cook, a political analyst who follows all 435 House races, "there's no Democratic tide coming out of all this." Still, he adds, the Democrats don't necessarily need a tide; a net gain of 11 seats would be enough.

"I think the Democratic strategy has always been predicated on a level playing field, and then just trying to cherry-pick just 15 to 18 seats, knowing they'll lose a couple here or there, too," says Mr. Cook. While a Democratic takeover "is not likely, it's a distinct possibility."

The level playing field seems to be in place, at least for now. In the last election, votes were almost perfectly divided between the two parties' House candidates - 48.9 percent for the Republicans versus. 48.6 percent for Democrats. It was the closest balance in modern history and the first time neither side reached 50 percent.

Surveys of voters' preference for "generic" House candidates show Democrats winning by a few points, within the margin of error.

Another sign points to a level playing field: An almost identical number of members from each party (49 Republicans and 45 Democrats) won their seats by less than 55 percent of the vote.

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri can almost feel the Speaker's gavel within his grasp. He's been criss-crossing the country - about 20 states visited so far this year - wooing candidates and raising money (and, no doubt, testing the waters for a possible 2000 presidential bid).

Tops on his list are Democrats who ran last time and almost won. Key GOP targets are those who are holding what the Democrats consider to be "their" seats - such as Republican John Ensign's seat in Nevada and the Wisconsin seats held by retiring members Mark Neumann and Scott Klug.

"We're way ahead of where we were two years ago at this time," says Stephanie Cohen, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Two years ago, we were still in shock from losing the House."

Now, says Ms. Cohen, the party has raised $1.2 million more than it had two years ago and has locked in more strong candidates.

The Republicans are equally confident. They know history is on their side. The party that controls the White House hasn't gained seats in a midterm election since 1934. And in "six-year itch" elections - the sixth year of a party's White House tenure - the presidential party has been trounced.

The Republican House election committee is also, as usual, ahead of the Democratic committee in fund-raising. And in an analysis of Charles Cook's latest political report, Republican strategists say they have candidates signed up for more of the close races than the Democrats do.

BUT the GOP isn't relying on the historical patterns of midterm elections to carry the day. One factor behind that pattern doesn't hold this time around: In 1996, President Clinton didn't carry a strong tide of Democratic House candidates into power with him - members who normally might have swept back out two years later. And the South's historic shift toward Republicanism has been nearly completed.

"Most of the at-risk Democratic members have already lost," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's not impossible" for the Democrats to win back the House, he adds, "but it's not very likely."

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