US House entirely up for grabs

Control of Congress hinges on a handful of tight races. But despite the national stakes, themes are local.

The fight for control of the next Congress is coming down to a handful of races that have been more polled, probed, and financed than any in history.

Once, only Senate races attracted this level of professional firepower. But in Election 2000, the tiniest shift in voter views - or inclination to act on them - could decide the outcome.

Democrats need only a net gain of seven seats to take back the House. At the beginning of this season, observers gave them an edge. They had the issues that ranked highest with voters: education, healthcare, Social Security. And key "open seat" races favored Democrats.

But the political winds are shifting ever so slightly. Some analysts now give Republicans a narrow advantage in their bid to hold onto the House, though it's still too close to call.

"Back in September, the wind was at the Democrats' back; today, signs are that that breeze isn't there," says Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the Cook Report, a bipartisan research group.

"It's all come down to 10 to 12 races," Ms. Walter adds. The Cook Report now estimates that Democrats will pick up two to eight House seats, down from a previous estimate of four to eight.

On Tuesday, the Gallup poll spotted Republicans a 47-to-44 percent lead over Democrats in congressional races. Last week, the Congressional Quarterly upgraded two Republican seats to "safe," but still gave Democrats a "decent" chance to pick up the seven seats they need.

After the Democratic convention, GOP pollsters began noticing that Republican voters were not as enthusiastic as before - a sign that some may not bother to vote. But after the presidential debates, Democratic pollsters noticed the same thing among their own base voters. One mark of this concern is that President Clinton is throwing himself into some key House races this week.

"Forced to predict, I'd now say the Republicans lose a few seats in the House and Senate, but hold onto control," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

These highly intense contests are averaging over $1 million in campaign contributions - a level of spending never before seen at the House level. In addition, political parties and outside interests are diverting millions in national funds to influence the outcome of close races.

Yet the themes of many races this year are often almost purely local. In 1994, Republican insurgents in the House campaigned on the same national agenda - the Contract With America - and captured 52 seats. This year, congressional politics has reverted back to its local roots.

"It's difficult to speak of any national trend in this election. House races are being fought on local concerns, gaffes, and mistakes," Mr. Wittmann says.

One race that's been drawing national attention is the battle to unseat Rep. James Rogan (R) in California's 27th District. Mr. Rogan was a manager in last year's impeachment trial, and proud of it.

Early on, Democrats and supporters of Mr. Clinton targeted this seat as vulnerable. Clinton raised funds for Rogan's opponent, state Sen. Adam Schiff, and is planning a swing through the district at the end of this week.

Yet the outcome of this $10 million-plus race will likely be determined by local issues, such as Rogan's sponsorship of a congressional resolution to define a death march in the crumbling Ottoman Empire 85 years ago as a genocide. That effort could draw support from the large Armenian community in his district.

For Democrats to retake the House, they're going to have to knock off some GOP incumbents, while defending their own. Some key races to watch:

* GOP Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington unseated Democratic House Speaker Thomas Foley in 1994 by campaigning on the need for term limits, but he has broken his own pledge not to run for a fourth term.

* Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey won in an upset in 1998, but is now locked in a bitter contest with the former Rep. Dick Zimmer. Polls show most voters don't know who is the incumbent.

* Rep. Charles Taylor (R) looked sure to win reelection in North Carolina's 11th District, but ran into tax and legal problems. Analysts now give Democrat Sam Neill a shot.

* GOP Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas is running for reelection in Clinton's home district. The White House is fundraising against Mr. Dickey, who voted for impeachment. But the president's involvement could backfire.

* Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida faces his strongest challenge in 20 years from state legislator Elaine Bloom, a formidable fundraiser. But an ad campaign questioning her ties to a pharmaceutical firm convicted of price fixing could be decisive in a district where prescription drugs are a top issue.

* Energy consultant Jim Matheson (D), the son of a former governor, could take an open seat in Utah's Second District. The state has been a GOP stronghold.

* Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (D) is in a tight race in Pennsylvania. Experts say the incumbent's attention to the needs of constituents could make the difference.

Commenting on the intensity of this year's election, Congressman Rogan said: "I feel like I've been through a three-year campaign. I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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