OMAHA -- Ally Milder, the merry, irreverent Republican running against Democratic Rep. Peter Hoagland in the 2nd Congressional District, may still be headed for an upset, but the bloody battle of the budget has downgraded her chances. "There's total disgust here with the budget trouble in Washington," Republican Mayor Peter J. Morgan told us. Fair or not, he said, it has portrayed George Bush as "ineffective" and is "tainting all Republican candidates in our state."
The mayor's glum appraisal is reflected among Republican insiders in Washington. They see bright possibilities for GOP challengers now dimming, and they see Democratic incumbents firming up. If that is true, and if the trend holds, President Bush's party will take a bath on Nov. 6.
Milder is a 35-year-old conservative comer in a barely Democratic district that went solidly for Bush in 1988. The start, middle and end of her sternly fashioned campaign is an exact replica of Bush's now-shredded "read-my-lips" no-tax pledge. Sporting a laconic sense of humor and a breathtaking self-confidence in her own no-tax stance, Milder is getting chewed up, and not only by the president. She is a political sister under the skin of House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, whose split with Bush two weeks ago over the budget that emerged from the summit fortified her own convictions. But when Gingrich agreed to trade an increase in the top marginal income tax rate for a radically lowered capital gains tax, Milder found herself all alone.
No summer soldier, she stayed glued to her no-tax position in last Saturday's televised debate with first-termer Hoagland, saying that tax increases "are forever" but spending cuts are good "only to the next supplemental appropriation." Hoagland shot back that "Ms. Milder is out of step with President Bush."
Here Monday night in his third visit since June to boost the Nebraska ticket, the president said little to satisfy Milder beyond the soothing words voters are coming to expect. Milder refused to utter a word of criticism about her president over Sunday night supper with us. Indeed, disagreeing with the mayor and other Republican leaders, she said voters in Nebraska's 2nd district "do not blame" Bush for the budget chaos that followed the humiliating rejection of his televised budget appeal. But her tender treatment of the president ignored the fact that a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats voted to ax that initial compromise budget.
With the battle of budget and taxes a magnet drawing all eyes to the Potomac, the rest of Milder's anti-incumbent, anti-establishment campaign has made little impact, considering the "throw the rascals out" mood. She wants House tours of duty limited to three four-year terms and the Senate to two six-year terms; a balanced-budget constitutional amendment; a line-item veto and an end to the millions of dollars spent on the congressional franking privilege.
On the budget, her bottom line is that Bush should stop haggling and compromising with Democrats and take his campaign against Congress to the country -- as Harry Truman did in 1948. She thinks the president should make this election turn on the tax issue, and that the budget should wait until after Nov. 6.
Private Republican polls show that Milder had moved 34 points to within striking distance of Hoagland by mid-September. But roughly similar advances by other Republican challengers facing first-term Democratic incumbents or running in open districts are showing unmistakable stumbles.
That suggests a strongly Democratic 102nd Congress with almost the same names and faces as the present 101st, without Ally Milder.