In 1998, a Good Political Recruit Is Hard to Find

Many incumbents, even in key states, face little opposition in era of ' feel-good' economy.

Just 10 months before an important election cycle, scores of politicians are running for reelection from California to New York - with no major challengers.

The low unemployment rate and general feeling of prosperity are making many incumbents seem so invincible that would-be challengers are finding reasons not to have their names on the November ballot.

Indeed, analysts say that there are fewer competitive races this year than at any time in recent history. While some seats will certainly be hotly contested, many others - including in key states - will feature little or no opposition to sitting candidates.

Take New York, a state where politics is usually a contact sport. Gov. George Pataki (R) is riding well over 50 percent in the polls - with no dominant Democrat yet to emerge. Last week, in his State of the State address, Mr. Pataki proposed new tax cuts and more funding for education and the environment - tough stands to run against.

"You could be Joe Bflszzbg [the Li'l Abner character with a cloud over his head] and be popular when you can do that," says former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo of his successor.

There are only two possibilities for this surge in incumbent popularity, continues Mr. Cuomo. "They have suddenly been struck in the tush by lightening and are all enlightened genius managers or the economy is good."

Certainly the economy is good. On Friday, the government reported the unemployment rate at 4.7 percent for December - near a 30-year low. Some 370,000 people found jobs last month. Economic cares are not that high for much of the population. The ennui extends to politics.

"This is one of the worst cycles in terms of recruitment that I have ever seen," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a Washington-based political newsletter. "The average voter is disinterested in politics and cares far more about the latest trial or the latest celebrity scandal or misfortune."

With so many popular incumbents, campaign consultants admit it's tough managing challengers this year. "This is like looking at the bench when you are getting beat by 60 to 0 and asking who wants to go in," says Jay Severin, a New York-based Republican campaign consultant.

Political analyst Charles Cook recently looked at the congressional races in Texas and Illinois. "Neither party seems to be setting any records for landing top-tier candidates," he wrote in Roll Call, a Washington-based newspaper. Based on these early races, he gave the Democrats a "D-plus" and the Republicans a "C" for recruitment.

One of the drawbacks for challengers is getting funding. At the top end this year, it can cost $15 million to run for a Senate seat. "People look at the House and Senate and ask, 'Is that really what I want to spend an enormous amount of money on?'" says Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

THIS is not to say there won't be some close or interesting races - particularly for governorships. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, picks his party to defeat five incumbent GOP governors. He says Democratic challengers are leading in the polls in New Mexico and Alabama and there is a dead heat in Connecticut. He thinks the Democrats have good chances in races (most open seats) in Georgia, California, Minnesota, and Iowa.

But national observers don't expect challengers to have many issues to run on. In 1996, candidates could point to the shutdown of the federal government or the debate over reforming Medicare. This year's issues include education, the affordability of college, and managed care. In Vermont, for example, where Governor Dean is up for reelection, the major issue is expected to be instituting a statewide property tax to fund education.

For challengers to win, they have to start early and develop a good strategic plan. "You have to convince the insiders you have the juice to knock off an incumbent," says Rich Davis of Squier, Knapp, Ochs and Dunn Communications, a Washington-based political consulting firm.

Juice alone may not be enough. For example, this past November, in the only congressional race in the country, Republican Vito Fossella defeated Democratic opponent Eric Vitaliano for Rep. Susan Molinari's (R) seat. A big difference was money. In the last weeks of the campaign, the Republican Party shelled out $850,000 for television advertising. "If one candidate is not on TV and another is, the candidate on TV will pull it off," says Davis.

The challengers' problems are particularly acute in states with popular incumbents - even in states where one party historically prevails. For example, in Arkansas, the Democrats are having trouble finding a credible candidate. "Traditionally, it's the Republicans who have offered up cannon fodder," says Rex Nelson, Gov. Mike Huckabee's director of communications.

Last year, the Arkansas Speaker of the House said he planned to run, then changed his mind. Next, a state senator raised $50,000 to test a candidacy. After looking at the polls, he dropped out. Now, an outsider, a Jonesboro lawyer, is trying to garner the Democratic Party's nod. His problem: Polls show Governor Huckabee capturing over 60 percent of the vote.

The same is true here in New York. With Pataki flush with money and proposing tax cuts, the Democrats will find it tough to retake the seat. The party may end up nominating Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, who switched parties last year after Pataki told her she would not be on his platform this year. Currently, she is garnering only about 20 percent in the polls - the same amount as other prospective Democrats. "Among the Democrats, the leader is far and away 'undecided,' " says Maurice Carroll, director of polling at Qunnipiac College in Hamden, Conn.

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