Second of two articles

Voters here and across the country are setting an agenda that strongly favors the Democratic Party in 2000--managed care reform, education, Social Security and health care for the elderly--forcing Republicans to search out ways to move the campaign debate in their direction.

"What we are faced with is a Democratic issue agenda," said Fred Steeper, who polls for the Republican National Committee and Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

But Republicans have spotted what they believe are Democratic vulnerabilities--a growing moral anxiety in the wake of horrific acts of violence as well as the presidential scandals, and evidence that spending alone won't save failing schools. Moreover, they believe they are now equipped to contest certain issues that have been favorable to Democrats.

"We are finding things within 'Democratic' issues," Steeper said. "Education and Social Security are two areas where Republicans ought to go on the offensive and not consider those to be defense issues."

In Kansas City, for example, Republicans see a potential political advantage in what most residents consider a local tragedy: the decision by the state Board of Education to remove the accreditation of the Kansas City school system. The state spent billions of dollars in a futile effort to turn the system into a national showcase and attract whites from surrounding suburbs. In this case, Republicans say, education becomes a campaign issue about the monumental waste of taxpayers' dollars by Democrats.

"The Democratic solutions have all been about money," said Daryl Duwe, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party. "Billions of dollars went into that system, probably more money per student than any other district in the state, and the performance of the district is an absolute failure."

Using similar techniques, Republican and Democratic strategists are making calculations about issues across the country that can be used against the other party, what are known as "wedge issues."

It could be a school fight that pits suburb against city poor, white against black. Even better, it could be an issue that matters to a constituency up for grabs this election: young parents determined that their children be able to compete in a high-tech marketplace; seniors no longer tied to the New Deal coalition, angry at sex on television and a philandering president; Hispanics holding the balance of power in such mega-states as California, Florida, Texas, New York and New Jersey.

For the Republican Party, finding ways to gain leverage is crucial because the anger that propelled GOP majorities into the House and Senate five years ago has dissipated. Crime, inflation, welfare rolls and the Berlin Wall are down. Affirmative action is getting mended if not ended. Prosperity under a Democratic president is pervasive.

Even worse for the GOP is the fact that the dominant concern of almost every partisan and demographic group, according to a new nationwide Washington Post poll, is that insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) are making decisions that the public thinks should be in the hands of doctors and patients.

This issue, which favors Democrats and has fractured Republicans fighting over the right of patients to sue HMOs, is the No. 1 worry of Republican, Democratic and independent voters, of those who say they support Bush, Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, and of urban, rural and suburban voters.

There are at least two key groups up for grabs in 2000--young, married suburbanites and older voters--according to strategists for both sides.

The young marrieds, who were crucial to President Clinton in 1996, put a high priority on day care, gun control, school-class size and family medical leave, which work to the advantage of Democrats.

Seniors' commitment to the Democratic Party has diminished sharply in recent years, and this is the group most angered by the White House sex scandal, though Clinton will not be on the ballot in 2000.

Some Republicans now believe they can fight Democrats on Social Security. Steeper, the GOP pollster, said it has changed from a single issue to one part of a much larger debate over preparing for retirement: "Social Security is a small part of this, the bigger issue is helping people prepare for retirement, say by raising the cap on IRA accounts, or letting people invest part of their Social Security in their own retirement accounts."

It is the same for education. "There are grand slams all over the place," Steeper said. "Teacher tenure, competency testing of teachers, reforming federal laws that prevent disciplining students. With special education students, for example, you can't dismiss or expel [violent or disruptive] students the way you can regular students."

Democrats say that Republicans fight over education and Social Security at their own risk. "Republicans can either try to change the subject or try to engage in the debate," said Democratic pollster Fred Yang. Taking on Social Security and education may be "the strategically smart thing, I just don't think they are going to make much headway," he said.

When political strategists explore local and national controversies, they are often looking for material to create a "wedge" issue. The ideal wedge issue performs two basic functions: It unites strong partisan supporters on common ground with swing voters, and it fractures the opposition. For the last two decades, core wedge issues have been crime and race.

The case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison raped a woman, represents the classic example of a wedge issue. In the 1988 presidential race, Republicans used it as a symbol of liberal Democratic politics run amok, uniting Republicans and independent swing voters against Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

In trying to develop new polarizing issues, the RNC divides the public into three groups: conservative-leaning Republicans, moderate-centrist swing voters and liberal-leaning Democrats, according to David Israelite, RNC political director.

Within this relatively simple framework, the party has identified a series of potential wedge issues on which Gore or Bradley or both have taken stands that are popular only with a segment of the Democratic electorate, and unpopular with voters in the center and on the right. These include late-term abortion (known by opponents as partial birth), the pardon of FALN Puerto Rican terrorists, gay rights legislation, public campaign financing, welfare reform and creation of a missile defense system.

Steeper, who conducted the RNC polling, found, for example, that when voters were asked if they were more or less likely to support Bradley if he supported a woman's right to partial-birth abortions, Republicans said they would be less likely by 80 percent to 14 percent, swing voters were negative by 62 percent to 25 percent, and Democrats were split, with 46 percent more likely and 41 percent less likely.

Even more damaging for a Democratic candidate is opposition to time limits for welfare recipients: Opposition is a loser among Republicans, 71 percent to 26 percent, among swing voters, 64 percent to 28 percent, and even among Democrats, 55 percent to 37 percent.

This data suggests that partial-birth abortion and welfare time limits are ideal wedge issues for the GOP, guaranteeing a substantial gain for those taking conservative stands, and high losses for those on the liberal side.

In practice, however, it is not that simple.

Democrats openly and Republicans privately acknowledge that raising the partial-birth abortion issue poses the danger of appearing to want a ban on all abortions. And that is not likely to sit well with suburban voters. "They are free agent voters who are moderate to liberal on social issues, conservative on fiscal issues," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod, a Gore supporter.

"It's a dangerous issue because the bigger the national debate on abortion, the bigger problem Republicans have," said Bill Knapp, a Gore strategist. A debate about partial-birth abortion will not be conducted in a vacuum, he said. "It's going to occur in the real world with a discussion of their efforts to restrict abortion, the right to choose. . . . It certainly doesn't become a wedge issue. At best it's a two-faced wedge that can cut back on them."

As the election gets closer, the Democrats' ace in the hole, Knapp said, is the economy. Is the GOP, which unsuccessfully pushed a $792 billion tax cut, "the party you are going to trust with the single most important thing we have going?" he asked.

Steeper countered that voter "disgust" with Clinton "trumps just everything." Voters, he said, are pleased with the economy, but when you ask them if the country is going in the right or wrong direction, they split almost evenly. That is because voters think the economy is on the right track by 71 percent to 26 percent, but that the country is on the wrong track in terms of morals and values by 69 percent to 27 percent, according to the RNC polling. The public's concerns over morality give the GOP an opening in the 2000 election to stress "values" issues, Steeper said.

"What I should really do is shut up and let them think that is true," countered Knapp. "They are just putting Band-Aids on huge wounds."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane, staff writer David S. Broder and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

Key Voter Groups: Top Concerns

Campaign strategists are paying close attention to the concerns of young married couples and older voters; both are considered key swing groups in election 2000. Two recent Washington Post polls asked Americans nationwide what was worrying them most these days. The results are listed below, ranked by the percentage (in gray bars) of those who worried "a great deal" about each concern.

MARRIED WITH SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

1. Concerns about HMOs 72%

2. School violence 64%

3. College costs 63%

4. Not enough family time 57%

5. Illegal drug use 57%

AGE 65 0R OLDER

1. Sex and violence on TV 73%

2. Concerns about HMOs 65%

3. Elderly not getting medicines 65%

4. Illegal drug use 63%

5. Fear of losing medical benefits 62%

Items listed above are abbreviated versions of longer survey questions. Figures are based on two separate Washington Post surveys conducted Oct. 13 -- 17 and Oct. 27 -- 31. Slightly more than 1,000 randomly selected adults nationwide were interviewed by telephone for each survey. Across the two polls, respondents were asked how much they worried about a total of 51 national concerns. These concerns were culled from voter interviews as well as this year's ongoing political debate. The margin of sampling error for the married-with-children group is plus or minus 6 percentage points; for the 65-and-over group, it is plus or minus 8 percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa.