AUGUSTA, GA. -- When Republican congressional candidate Sam Jones goes soliciting for votes and campaign dollars, his aides tote along a television set, a VCR and a tape of a recent "Donahue" show on the collapse of the U.S. savings and loan industry.
The technique may be unconventional, but the hammering, outraged style of Phil Donahue and his guests on the recent program matches the rhetoric and campaign message of Jones.
A minister, family counselor and business consultant whose parents worked in the textile mills along the Savannah River here, Jones is making a long-shot bid to unseat Rep. Doug Barnard Jr. (D-Ga.) in a campaign centered on charges that Barnard played a direct role in the nation's costliest financial scandal.
If the thrift debacle is going to generate political fallout this November, the 10th Congressional District of Georgia is one of the few places where it might land. Political strategists from both parties will be studying the race here, and a handful of other House contests, to gauge how voters react to a financial crisis that eventually will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and that could continue to blossom as a political issue in the 1992 presidential election year.
For 14 years, the 10th District -- a sprawling swath of mostly rural northeast Georgia that stretches from the Democratic stronghold of Augusta to the relatively liberal academic community of Athens and to the rapidly growing and strongly Republican outer suburbs of Atlanta -- has been comfortable territory for Barnard, who generally receives better than 70 percent of the vote.
But this year, in what some expect will be his last reelection campaign, Barnard is clearly off-balance and on the defensive. With public anger mounting over the cost of paying off depositors at failed thrifts, a cost underscored by President Bush's reversal on the need for a tax increase, two Republican candidates are pointing the finger of blame at one of the senior members of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee.
Jones and Mark Myers, who face each other in the July 17 GOP primary, accuse the Democratic incumbent of selling out to the industry he was supposed to be overseeing. They charge that Barnard, a former banker who chairs a key Government Operations oversight subcommittee, was asleep at the switch as the thrift industry plunged into the practices that caused the collapse. They say that Barnard was lulled by a cozy relationship with the industry cemented by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, including $20,000 from Charles H. Keating Jr. and his associates in the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan.
Calling the charges "outlandish," Barnard has begun building a defense. He has solicited a testimonial from former Federal Home Loan Bank Board head Edwin J. Gray in which Gray attests to the Georgian's integrity and states that "you did not, in fact, ever interfere with the regulatory process during my tenure as chief regulator of savings institutions."
In addition, Barnard's aides have compiled a thick documentary file designed to show that his subcommittee rode herd on some of the thrift industry's risky investment practices as early as 1985, and explaining why Barnard abstained on a key vote on a savings and loan recapitalization measure.
Yet Barnard realizes that voters may not have the patience for complex explanations. "When they hear it's going to cost $4,000 a person, it could be an issue," he conceded.
Neither Jones nor Myers is spending much time on nuance as each attacks the incumbent.
"Doug Barnard is up to his eyebrows in this S&L scandal," Jones thundered at a meeting with voters here last week that was held in an ironic setting: the 16th floor of an Augusta bank building that was formerly home to the Georgia Railroad Bank, where Barnard once served as executive vice president. "Doug Barnard is one of five people who could have stopped this S&L crisis, but he didn't stop it because he was paid not to do it."
Jones has shown a flair for the kind of dramatic stroke that can overcome a small campaign treasury. He raised his profile this spring by erecting billboards picturing a $20,000 check from Keating to Barnard and urging the incumbent to "give the money back."
Myers, a real estate agent who was defeated by Barnard in 1988, is equally unforgiving, calling Barnard the "stereotype of the old-time crooked politician from down South."
Democrats and Republicans, mindful that neither party comes to the S&L debacle with totally clean hands, have recently stepped up their maneuvering to blame each other for the financial calamity.
In the House, for example, lawmakers from both parties have rushed to introduce and cosponsor a spate of savings and loan-related bills, including measures to appoint a special congressional investigating committee, to create a special prosecutor to probe the industry's collapse, including possible congressional involvement, and to beef up the criminal enforcement activities of the Justice Department.
Political analysts think the savings and loan issue could be decisive in a handful of House races this fall, including:
Rep. Frank Annunzio's reelection bid in his Chicago district. A senior Democrat on the House Banking Committee and the chairman of its financial institutions subcommittee, Annunzio has been targeted for defeat by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
His opponent, Illinois state Sen. Walter W. Dudycz, is hammering Annunzio for accepting $3,000 in contributions from Keating and his associates and allegedly for doing nothing to head off the thrift disaster.
Annunzio, meanwhile, who has taken to sporting a "Jail the S&L Crooks" button on his lapel, has held high-profile hearings into the role of President Bush's son, Neil, in the failed Silverado Savings & Loan and into what he charges is the slow pace of prosecutions since President Bush took office.
Republican Rep. Charles Pashayan Jr.'s reelection contest in California. Like Barnard and Annunzio, Pashayan has a potential Keating problem, and he faces a Democratic challenger who is eager to exploit it.
Pashayan accepted $26,000 in Keating-related contributions -- money he has since returned -- and introduced legislation to thwart tighter regulation on direct investments by savings and loan associations. Pashayan says the bill was designed to help a small, minority-owned thrift in his district, but Democratic nominee Calvin Dooley charges it was aimed at helping Keating and his thrift.
"One of the reasons George Bush is reneging on a tax increase is because of the cost of the savings and loan crisis," said Dooley during a recent visit to Washington. "Voters are going to look for people to hold accountable and certainly Congressman Pashayan can be held accountable."
Rep. Denny Smith's campaign in Oregon, where the veteran Republican is being called on to explain what Democrats charge was a clear conflict of interest involving his service on the board of directors of an Oregon thrift. While serving on the board, Smith urged federal regulators to give directors immunity from civil suits.
The key question in these races is whether voters will translate their general disgust with Washington and their anger at the S&L collapse into a broad protest vote aimed at incumbents.
Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster who represents a number of congressional candidates, said recent surveys have begun to pick up a growing anti-incumbent sentiment. "It's like a severe barometric drop before a storm," Secrest said, "and S&Ls is one of the strongest engines driving it."
Interviews with voters in Georgia's 10th District seem to indicate that the storm, if there is one, is still over the horizon. Their anger over the S&L crisis still seems unfocused, directed more at Congress in general or "those people in Washington" than specifically at Rep. Barnard.
Leon Meyer, a nuclear consultant, for example, blames former president Ronald Reagan and says Barnard's acceptance of money from Keating won't influence his vote. "I know Doug and I have no concern he would do anything unethical," Meyer said.
But Barnard's opponents are attracting support from people who have backed the incumbent in the past and from newcomers to politics.
"Some of the power players here who've supported Doug Barnard are fed up," said Athens stockbroker Don Davis, who held a fund-raiser last week for Republican candidate Jones in his Oconee County home.
Another Jones supporter, however, concedes it will be an uphill fight to defeat Barnard. "Most people are going to support Doug Barnard because they are Democrats, no matter what he's done," said Athens real estate agent Martha Hamilton as she prepared to write a check for the Jones campaign.