On a steamy Saturday afternoon last summer, two officials of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee checked into a hotel room in Lansing, Mich., and began receiving visitors.
Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), the genial and easygoing new chairman of the DCCC, and his intense, high-strung field director, Rahm Emanuel, were on a hectic weekend shopping trip of sorts, surveying potential Democratic congressional candidates in four midwestern states.
By the time they broke for dinner, the two men had met with three eager would-be challengers to Rep. Carl D. Pursell, a Republican who has served six terms representing Michigan's 2nd Congressional District.
First came Lana Pollack, a state senator with a record of running well in the Ann Arbor portion of the second district and strong ties to labor and women's groups.
She was followed by Bob Bowman, Michigan's treasurer, who had just moved to the district but was supported by the state's popular Democratic governor, James J. Blanchard.
Last came Dean Baker, a teacher at the University of Michigan, who ran a poorly organized and underfinanced effort against Pursell in 1986, losing badly.
The meeting with Baker was little more than a formality. The real agenda was encouraging Pollack and Bowman to avoid a bloody primary fight that could weaken the party's chances of knocking off Pursell next year.
Pollack has since joined the race, and DCCC officials expect Bowman to drop out.
Candidate recruitment efforts like that undertaken by the DCCC officials last summer have always been an integral, if little-noticed, part of the biennial campaigns for party control of the House.
But this year, with the prospect of relatively few open seats due to retirements and House members running for other offices, candidate recruitment is assuming increased importance for Anthony and his Republican counterpart, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.).
Because it is very difficult for challengers to unseat House members -- 98 percent of those running for reelection in 1986 won -- both the DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee have tended to concentrate funds and campaign resources on candidates running for open seats and protecting their few vulnerable incumbents.
"Generally, Republicans have done best in open seats because they don't have to fight a backlog of $1 million a year in taxpayers' benefits" available to incumbent members of Congress, said Van der Jagt, chairman of the NRCC. "When we start even, we do better."
That focus is undergoing some change this year with the increasing likelihood that fewer House seats than usual will be open. Both congressional committees expect to be able to offer challengers more help than in the past.
By the end of this month, for example, Anthony will have completed recruitment trips to each major region of the country.
None of that, however, is expected to bring any dramatic change in the balance of power in the House, where Democrats have kept a stranglehold on the majority since 1954, and all but two times since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first election in 1932.
Democrats now hold a 258-to-177 advantage in the House, and neither party is predicting a fundamental realignment.
Given historical trends, the real goal of the Democrats is to not lose any ground in a presidential year. Since 1952, Democrats have averaged a seven-seat loss in presidential election years, compared with average gains of 10 seats in mid-term elections.
But partly because of what they feel is better success at recruiting quality candidates, Democrats are guardedly optimistic about their chances of increasing their majority in 1988. "I think we've been doing very well," said Richard Bates, executive director of the DCCC. "We've found a lot of dynamic, energetic political candidates who want to become involved."
Since last month's stock market plunge, Anthony has become increasingly optimistic about his prospects.
"Without question it increases our ability to get candidates in the field," Anthony said. "It's an opportunity, especially for those who are considering running against marginal Republicans."
Officials at the DCCC are watching with interest as the GOP struggles to find credible candidates in some key districts held by freshmen Democrats who by all rights ought to be prime targets for the Republicans.
Democratic Rep. Elizabeth J. Patterson, for example, who won a first term in 1986 by less than 6,000 votes in a normally Republican district of South Carolina, is looking relatively secure because of GOP recruitment problems.
The same is true for freshmen Democrats Louise M. Slaughter from upstate New York, who narrowly won in 1986 in a longtime Republican district, and Tom McMillen, who was elected by 428 votes in the 4th District of Maryland that had been Republican since its creation. Neither yet faces serious opposition.
Vander Jagt still predicts that the GOP "could have one heck of a year in the House" if the party has a strong presidential standard-bearer, the economy does not go sour and the Democrats bloody themselves at their national convention.
Yet he also concedes that Republican recruitment efforts are proceeding more slowly than he would like, and that the DCCC is narrowing somewhat the NRCC's usually huge fund-raising lead.
On the other hand, Republicans who only a few months ago worried that the Iran-contra affair could turn into an albatross for their House candidates are taking heart from this summer's special election in the 4th District of Connecticut, which was won by Republican Christopher Shays.
Joseph R. Gaylord, executive director of the NRCC, said he had feared a Republican loss in that district would be a harbinger in the way that several GOP losses in special elections during Watergate were, when Democrats subsequently gained 43 seats in 1974.
"I thought 'We don't need to start that again,' " Gaylord said. "Winning the Fourth was a page seven story, but losing it would have been a page one story."
Despite the greater emphasis on recruiting strong challengers to run against House incumbents in 1988, the task of scouting-out good opportunities remains more of an art than a science.
That was evident during the July recruitment trip by Anthony, when he made a long detour to South Bend, Ind., to appear in front of a closed ball-bearing factory with Democratic candidate Tom Ward.
In 1986, the DCCC had written off Ward's longshot challenge to Rep. John Hiler in Indiana's 3rd District. The race ended up as the closest in the country, with Ward eventually losing by 47 votes after a lengthy recount.
This time, with 16 months to go before a possible rematch, Anthony stood under a hot sun, looked into the television cameras and told district voters that the DCCC "will throw the full weight of our support behind this man."