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GOP Senators Treading Gingerly

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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 29, 1999; Page A17

    Last year Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) called President Clinton a sexual "predator" and was one of the first elected officials to call for Clinton to resign. Lately he has been silent on the subject of the president's conduct.

    Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), a politician who has never been shy about expressing his views on controversial issues, has avoided the limelight during the Senate trial of the president, avoiding the Sunday morning talk shows that have featured numerous senators this month.

    Their staffs say the two senators are simply adhering to their oath to administer "impartial justice" on the question of Clinton's guilt or innocence. "He's decided he's got to take this seriously without any kind of party identification," said Joe McMonigle, Abraham's communications director.

    But Abraham and Ashcroft are two of 19 Republican senators who face reelection in 2000, and some analysts believe they are keeping a low profile to avoid antagonizing voters on the divisive issue. As an aide to one GOP senator said this week: "Any time an elected official goes on TV, his negatives go up if it's under the [umbrella] of impeaching Clinton. . . . There's nothing they could say that would be a positive in this environment."

    Of these 19 Republicans who face reelection in 2000, nine of them first won election in the favorable Republican climate of the 1994 election; 13 of the 19 come from states Clinton carried in 1996. Beyond Ashcroft and Abraham, those who could face serious challenges include Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Rod Grams (Minn.), Slade Gorton (Wash.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.). Others who could run into trouble, according to independent analysts, include Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio), John H. Chaffee (R.I.) and William V. Roth Jr. (Del.)

    Their potential problems stem from a variety of factors -- changing electorates at home, the possibility of strong opposition -- but there's no question that the impeachment issue has added a new worry if only, as independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg put it, "because of the danger that the Republican Party as a whole will find themselves in a deep hole."

    A new poll from the Pew Research Center reported that Democrats enjoy "a huge advantage over Republicans" on issues including education, Social Security and reform of health maintenance organizations. Even on tax cuts, long considered one of the GOP's most potent weapons, Democrats were seen as the party with better ideas by 45 percent to 32 percent. Only on the issue of improving the nation's moral climate did Republicans hold an edge, according to the poll. As Republicans attempt to analyze the impact of their votes on whether to convict Clinton and remove him from office, they wonder whether the fallout over the vote in the Senate will resemble that of the Persian Gulf War vote of 1991 or the Anita F. Hill-Clarence Thomas battle that year.

    Many people predicted that Democratic senators who opposed the resolution authorizing the gulf war would be vulnerable in 1992, but in the end none lost their jobs because of it. In contrast, the aftermath of the contentious hearings over Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court brought about the primary defeat of one Democratic senator, threatened Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and spawned the "Year of the Woman," which brought four more Democratic women to the Senate.

    "I do not agree with the conventional wisdom that Republicans in states Clinton won are in political trouble because of their vote," said Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist. "I think voters in these states will allow for a vote of conscience with which they disagree."

    "There was no sanction for Democrats who voted against the Gulf War because it worked and we moved on," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "But there is no question that the Anita Hill thing created something, and the press coverage did create a backdraft for women candidates. . . . It had an impact."

    Several GOP strategists said Republican senators must balance the views of voters who say Clinton should not be removed from office with those of grass-roots conservatives who advocate his removal. "I still believe in the tenet of Politics 101: Do not get in a fight with your base," said conservative strategist Greg Mueller.

    Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster, said Abraham has improved his standing with voters in recent months, but could be damaged by the impeachment issue in 2000. A recent poll by his firm found that 31 percent of Michigan voters said they would be less likely to vote for Abraham if he votes to convict Clinton, while 22 percent said they would be more likely. "If this issue has not gone away and if it is perceived he [cast] a partisan vote, it could have an effect," Sarpolus said.

    James Blanchard, the former Democratic governor of Michigan who is considering whether to challenge Abraham, predicted the freshman Republican will vote to acquit Clinton when the Senate takes up the articles of impeachment. "I would predict that absolutely," Blanchard said. He said he had not made up his mind about the race. "I think he's vulnerable, but I think incumbents have such a huge advantage that I think the potential vulnerabilities are somewhat exaggerated," he said.

    Dave Hanson of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said, "I don't think it's going to be the overwhelming issue going into the 2000 election. The best thing the senators can do right now is to do what they think is right."

    But Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, called impeachment "a wave that we ride" in 2000. "This is something where a large movement is going to be set, and Democrats need simply not to complicate the message [that] the Republican leadership of Congress is not to be trusted with power," he added. Torricelli also said the impeachment issue will help Democrats recruit Senate candidates. "Any time you get an incumbent U.S. senator casting a highly visible and controversial vote against the wishes of the American people . . . it is going to result in challengers getting engaged," he said.

    Torricelli said his talks with Blanchard have been "very positive," and he also predicted that Delaware Gov. Tom Carper (D) will challenge Roth. A Carper spokeswoman said the governor has said nothing about running.

    A number of GOP senators have come under fire over impeachment. Chaffee has been hammered for his votes to keep the trial going by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), who until taking over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was thinking about challenging Chaffee in 2000. But Chaffee's office contends that while the votes of some freshman Republicans might haunt them next year, Chaffee will survive by virtue of his 24-year tenure in the Senate and comfortable relationship with Rhode Island voters of both parties.

    Charles Cook, a political analyst for National Journal, said he doubted political considerations will affect the votes of Republicans such as Santorum, Grams or DeWine. "Anyone who thinks that polls will affect what [they] do on impeachment has never met them," he said. But Cook added that polls will influence "how they package whatever it is they decide to do. If I were them, I'd vote for impeachment but keep your mouth shut before, during and after, and when it's over move on to other things."

    Ashcroft faces a challenge from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D). Joe Carmichael, the Missouri Democratic chairman, said his party will use the impeachment issue "to make the public aware that he's an arch-conservative." Despite Ashcroft's current low profile, Carmichael said Democrats would continue to remind voters where he stands.

    Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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