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  •   Parties' Core Backers Seen as Key to Vote

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, May 9, 1998; Page A06

    Democratic and Republican strategists said yesterday that a key to victory in the 1998 elections will be how successful each party is in getting core supporters to the polls.

    With voters generally content and not particularly interested in politics, one of the most effective ways to energize supporters, party officials said, is to demonize the opposition.

    At a Democratic National Committee session on "What are we fighting for and who is fighting against us," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) declared: "Don't you believe that they [Republicans] don't want to dismantle the Social Security system. They are afraid to come out from under their hoods and attack us directly."

    At the same gathering, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) fired up Democratic troops by saying that the GOP is so determined to keep Hispanic voters from casting ballots that the party is willing to send precinct workers dressed as immigration officers to scare Latino voters and is prepared to spend millions of dollars on failed inquiries into voter fraud. "It's all about intimidation," she said.

    Over at a National Republican Congressional Committee briefings, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), committee chairman, said the escalation of attacks by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on the ethics of the Clinton administration has paid off in reviving the spirits of party activists and opening the checkbooks of party donors.

    "Off-year elections are all about turnout, energizing your base," Linder said yesterday. "I can tell you that at the grass roots, people are getting excited again."

    Speaking to reporters less than 24 hours after Gingrich's harsh comments to the New Hampshire legislature about the alleged improprieties of the Clinton administration, Linder added, "To the extent he is outspoken, he has energized our base."

    At the DNC meeting, Mark Penn, who polls for the White House and for the party, contended that Gingrich's attacks on Clinton pose a danger for the GOP: They may help mobilize core Republicans, but at the same time, the attacks anger and energize Democratic voters. "If you start an extreme partisan attack," Penn said, "one of the things it's going to do is mobilize our base."

    Penn and DNC General Chairman Roy Romer said Democrats have positive messages on such issues as the minimum wage and Medicare that will help mobilize the base vote, those who are reliable supporters of the party.

    Penn noted that in addition to attracting the base vote, Democrats also must focus on suburban voters, since many of the competitive congressional contests are in predominantly suburban areas. Clinton did very well in those areas in 1996, and Penn contended that Democrats should have an advantage with suburban voters on two highly salient issues, education and tobacco reform.

    While Democrats "are taking care of America," Romer said, "the Republican Party is the party of investigation."

    Strategists generally agree that voters are disinterested in politics, and that no overriding themes have emerged to shape the election and attract national attention. In those circumstances, turning out the base vote – minorities, labor, feminists, government workers, in the case of Democrats; white evangelical Christians, conservatives, upscale voters, small businessmen in the case of Republicans – becomes crucial.

    Penn presented selective poll data designed to show a favorable climate for Democratic House and Senate candidates. Voters, he told the DNC, give Clinton more credit than congressional Republicans for the economic recovery, by 49 percent to 33 percent, and Democrats in Congress get more credit for the economy than their GOP colleagues, by 36 percent to 29 percent.

    Linder predicted that the Republican Party will substantially strengthen its 11-seat majority in the House by picking up 15 or more seats in November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee immediately issued a statement describing Linder as "delusional."

    Romer and Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, predicted Democratic gains in the House, although both were cautious in discussing the possibility of Democrats regainning control.

    History suggests that Democrats would have an uphill fight just picking up seats: The president's party has lost seats in every recent nonpresidential year.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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