James R. Dickenson

The Parties Look Ahead

DES MOINES -- Every politician who is serious about the future should come here at this time of year as the Republican governors did last week. There is nothing like Iowa in the winter to strip away euphoria and false enthusiasms.

The GOP governors got in touch with reality right at the start, when they called the roll. There will be 16 of them when business is resumed next year, a net gain of just one in Ronald Reagan's landslide.

Despite their debacles in the last two presidential elections, the Democrats still have a more than 2-to-1 margin in governors, hold about 60 percent of the state legislative seats, control the House of Representatives and have excellent prospects of winning back the Senate in 1986.

"The theme of this meeting is that the presidential sweep doesn't necessarily lead to majority status or legislative control," said Gov. Richard Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Actually, the theme of the meeting was how to achieve majority status or "realignment" of the two parties. And, once the governors got past the roll call and the first wintry blasts, they sounded increasingly optimistic that they have the advantage on the issues -- emphasis on the private sector in the economy and strong foreign policy -- and that they have increasing appeal to the young.

In one sense, the Republicans and the Democrats, who are undergoing their own post- November soul searching, are mirror opposites of each other.

The Republicans have emerged as the presidential party, having won four of the last five presidential elections and believing that they hold the high ground in national issues. They are fully aware of the reality, however, that except for the Senate this hasn't trickled down to lower offices for the most part.

Many Democrats, on the other hand, think their national party is a mess and refer to it in terms of dismay.

"Those of us out in the country hasten to distance ourselves from the national party," Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona told the Coalition for a Democratic Majority a few days ago. "The national party is the party of the past and of the status quo."

Paul Kirk, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a candidate to be its next chairman, told reporters recently that the national Democratic Party "has to show that it's fit to govern its own affairs before it can govern the country." Like many others, he lamented that the party didn't have a "message" that was persuasive to a majority of the national electorate.

To say that the Republicans are considerably more upbeat than the Democrats is to understate things considerably. They may have a long way to go, but they've mapped the road and believe they've taken the first step.

They gained a net of about 325 state legislative seats on Nov. 6, making significant gains particularly in Texas and North Carolina, and made a met gain of seven legislative chambers that they control, including one in Walter Mondale's home state of Minnesota.

They still trail the Democrats by a wide margin in total seats -- the Democrats hold 4,300 of the total of about 7,400 -- but Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the governors that the GOP was within five seats of a majority in 10 state legislative chambers and within 10 seats in 13 more. For the past few years, Fahrenkopf has been engaged in an ambitious effort to win control of a majority of the state legislatures before the 1990 census and reapportionment.

"We'll never control the House -- or be the majority party -- until we can undo what the Democrats did to us with the 1980 reapportionment," he told the governors.

Some, like Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV of Delaware, who is running for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination and building a national base by helping state legislative candidates, think it's imminently doable.

"It took us three years in Minnesota," he said. "You form a committee, find the right candidates, build a support system and raise money. We can do it by 1990."

Pollsters Robert Teeter and Richard Wirthlin told the governors that young voters are the key.

"We got 44 percent of the voters under the age of 24 in 1980 and got 64 percent of them in 1984," Wirthlin said. "In 1980 we got 46 percent of the blue-collar vote; in 1984 we built on that and got 55 percent."

The Republicans are cutting into traditionally Democratic groups such as youth, southern whites, Catholic ethnics, blue-collar workers and Hispanics, according to Teeter.

"Age is the key dimension," he said. "We're getting the younger half of these groups."