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House GOP Leaders Sound an Alarm

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, February 5, 1999; Page A4

    House Republicans got a dose of shock therapy last night with a mock video reporting on how they lost control of the House in 2000 and a warning that they must shed the baggage from impeachment and develop a new agenda to prevent the video from coming true.

    The grim assessment of the party's condition, based in part on the findings of a lengthy new internal poll, was delivered by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), at the opening of the House GOP's annual winter retreat in Williamsburg, Va.

    "I don't think it's gloom and doom, but I think it's a message to Republicans that they need to get their act together, they need to hone their message," Davis said in an interview yesterday. "Does impeachment hurt us in 2000? No. But does it hurt us today? Yes."

    The poll, conducted last week by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates, underscored the damage the party has suffered during impeachment. Republicans trail Democrats 46 percent to 39 percent in voter preference for House candidates and run behind in party identification. The poll pegged President Clinton's approval rating at 70 percent and showed that the public disapproved of congressional Republicans' performance by 51 percent to 46 percent.

    The survey, which was disclosed yesterday in the biweekly newspaper Roll Call, also confirmed what other polls have found: Republicans have lost the advantages they once held on key issues, and the issues most favorable to the Democrats – education and Social Security – are the ones voters care most about.

    Democrats enjoyed a 5 percentage-point advantage over Republicans on crime, long a key Republican issue. On taxes, a topic the GOP hopes to use in the new Congress to rebuild public support, Republicans held a 5 percentage-point advantage over Democrats.

    Davis and other GOP leaders, such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), are using the retreat to deliver what some Republicans referred to as "a wake-up call" to members who have barely begun legislating in Congress.

    Davis said he realized House Republicans, who hold a six-seat majority in the House, may be taken aback by his committee's findings, but added, "I better tell them now."

    Last night, Davis opened his presentation, which was closed to reporters, with the video that fast-forwarded to election night 2000 and showed Republicans stunned by the news that Democrats have taken control of the House.

    "We need to be talking about our issues. We need to be talking about something other than impeachment," said Davis, shortly before he made his presentation. "Right now, that is smothering our message."

    In the video, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) appeared on the screen in jubilation, as Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) wielded the gavel of the House Judiciary Committee with relish. "I've been here two years and I may never be in the majority again," bemoaned freshman Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) lamented: "If we'd known this two years ago, we could have done something."

    Davis also reported that the NRCC begins the battle in debt after the 1998 midterm elections, which cost Republicans five House seats. The total debt stands at about $3.7 million, according to sources.

    One GOP source discounted the financial problems facing the NRCC. "The debt is not an unwieldy number out of sync with where we've been in the past," the Republican said. But others said the NRCC faces significant problems with its direct mail fund-raising, long a backbone of its financial operations. "Our base is so turned off at us right now," one party strategist said.

    Part of the problem stems from the departure of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who raised an estimated $50 million for the NRCC this past cycle. "It was Newt's name and voice that provided that money," one GOP strategist said. "They have a lot to be worried about."

    Even more pressing than the fund-raising challenge, Davis said, is the absence of a party agenda with broad public appeal.

    Hastert has begun assembling a slate of bipartisan initiatives on issues ranging from missile defense to federal mandates. He and other GOP leaders have focused on Social Security, tax cuts, education and national defense as their top priorities.

    Davis said there were some bright spots in the poll. He also noted that only 36 percent of those polled by the NRCC said impeachment would be a factor in their vote during the 2000 elections, with 48 percent of that group supporting impeachment and 51 percent opposing it.

    Davis also emphasized that while House Republicans are faring badly in the public eye at the moment, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has consistently led Vice President Gore in hypothetical presidential matchups. "Basically, we have a message that resonates, but the congressional Republican Party is not able to articulate it," Davis said.

    Eilperin reported from Williamsburg; Balz reported from Washington.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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