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    Campaign '98

    By Gebe Martinez
    LEGI-SLATE News Service
    Tuesday, July 7, 1998

    WASHINGTON — The November general election will have the lowest turnout in recent history, draw voters mostly over the age of 50, will be preceded by more nastiness in both Congress and paid political advertising, and will end with Republicans keeping control of the House and Senate, a group of political consultants said Monday.

    The headlines the morning after the election, the Democratic and Republican operatives generally agreed, will focus on whether the GOP will occupy the governors' mansions in the nation's 10 most populous states. The election could have a long-term impact on the congressional and state political district lines to be redrawn after the 2000 Census, they noted.

    While disagreeing on how "hot" issues such as health care, education and tobacco regulation will play before voters, the consensus among the seven political strategists at a Capitol Hill forum was that both parties will have trouble getting their voters to the polls because of good economic times.

    "People are feeling OK. And because they are feeling OK, they don't feel the need to express themselves at the ballot box," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who advises the House and Senate leadership.

    The strategists predicted that the November election will draw less than 37 percent of eligible voters. The lowest election turnout since 1960 occurred in 1986, an off-presidential election year similar to this one, when only 36.4 percent of the voting age population cast ballots, according to the nonpartisan Project Vote Smart.

    Luntz, who strategized in 1994 to drive the "angry voter" to the polls, resulting in the GOP takeover of Congress, said each party must intensify voter interest, "which is why you are most likely to see more confrontation rather than cooperation" in Congress before November.

    A preview of that confrontation was offered Monday by President Clinton, who pressured Congress to act on domestic issues such as education and health care.

    "Congress has a choice to make in writing this chapter of our history," said the president, who faces only about 40 voting days to resurrect his legislative agenda. "It can choose partisanship, or it can choose progress. Congress must decide."

    Proposed health care reforms are expected to be debated in the House and Senate in the coming weeks. Among the key differences between the two parties is a provision in the Democratic version allowing patients to sue their health maintenance organizations – an idea opposed by the GOP leadership.

    During Monday's discussion, Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock and Luntz played out their partisan messages. Contending that Republicans are against the bill because they are defending the health care industry, Pollock observed: "They are fighting it tooth and nail."

    Luntz immediately jumped in and declared: "And the Democrats appear to be puppets of more federal control."

    The Democratic strategy incorrectly assumes Congress will not act on health care legislation this year, said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster.

    Once the Republicans pass some sort of the health care bill – and McInturff expects it to happen – Democrats will be left with an election message that is harder to sell: that the GOP plan does not "do enough," McInturff said.

    "`Something' versus `Not enough' is not a campaign that gets the House back" for the Democrats, McInturff maintained.

    But "voters are very suspicious of a Republican alternative," argued Democratic strategist Celinda Lake. She also said the issue will play badly for Republicans once the lines are drawn from health insurance companies to GOP coffers.

    Lake also drew the same conclusion on the tobacco issue, and the industry's recent success in killing a comprehensive tobacco control measure [S. 1415] that was on the Senate floor.

    Until Congress acts, however, there are already many signs that the health care issue is plaguing campaigns.

    One of McInturff's current clients, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., is defending the GOP stance as he defends his seat against Democrat John Edwards in a Senate race that is considered perhaps the tightest in the country.

    The anti-HMO message already has been used in television commercials, including in one Kentucky congressional race by Democratic media consultant Doc Sweitzer. The issue offers a "clear dividing line with Democrats for patients, while the Republicans are for insurance companies," Sweitzer said.

    Sweitzer also has used education and Social Security in his television spots.

    But Republicans are buoyed by surveys showing that they have sliced the Democrats' lead among voters on its handling of education. Where Democrats could once claim the issue as their own by a 30-point margin, their lead has dropped by about half, according to recent polls.

    Also, older voters are expected to be the dominant factor in the November election – a vote group that Republicans rely on during off- presidential election years.

    Democrats will try to compete for the older voters by highlighting President Clinton's efforts to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund. "You are going to see both parties really battle for seniors," Lake said.

    The political discussion also highlighted problem areas for both parties among voters.

    Lake said the more the negative campaigning, the greater the likelihood one segment of the Democratic vote will likely stay home: "noncollege- educated women."

    The Democratic strategists also said their party will be challenged to mobilize Hispanics, who traditionally fall far short of their share of the voter registration.

    Luntz, the Republican advisor, said the ongoing investigation of President Clinton and his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky will have a "narrow impact" on Democratic voter turnout. He added that Democrats will never regain control of Congress until they figure out how to attract white males.

    But the Republicans acknowledged they have their own worries with the electorate: Hispanics still favor Democrats, and there are some philosophical divisions among conservatives within the party.

    China "could end up being the issue that really starts to cause a wedge within the Republican majority," Luntz said. "You see no effort on either side of that great divide to try to reach out."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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