As hard-charging Republicans across the country talk optimistically about marching back to Washington with big gains in the House of Representatives--possibly even a majority--there's one Southeast-area contest where the GOP is in a struggle to hold onto one of its own.
Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) faces a spirited challenge from Cypress College associate professor Peter Mathews, 42, a Democrat who is vying to become the first American of East Indian descent in Congress since 1963.
Democrats say they smell an upset in the 38th Congressional District, which includes Long Beach, Signal Hill, Lakewood, Bellflower, Paramount, Downey and parts of San Pedro and Wilmington. Not only do registration figures favor the party in the district, but Mathews has raised enough money to run a strong campaign and has galvanized a corps of youthful volunteers.
Seasoned political observers, however, are skeptical. They note that Horn, in winning the seat two years ago, showed that his generally moderate views are attractive to many registered Democrats. And since taking office, he has developed a reputation for paying attention to local issues.
Political analyst Charles E. Cook Jr., the Washington-based editor of the Cook Political Report, says Mathews' ability to raise money means "he's a guy who's credible. But Cook adds: "It doesn't establish him as a winner."
He still rates Horn as the likely victor. "There's a phrase I keep finding myself plugging in here," Cook says of Mathews' chances. "In any other year. . . ."
Still, Democratic campaign officials contend that Horn is one of only a handful of GOP congressmen who are vulnerable in what is widely being portrayed as a banner Republican year.
Said an official of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington: "We've got a savvy campaigner in a district that is becoming more multiethnic. This is definitely one we're keeping our eye on."
Mathews says Horn's opposition to social spending places him out of touch with his district. "Can Horn really represent the middle class and working class people of the district, given his philosophy?" Mathews asks.
Horn, 63, a former president of Cal State Long Beach with longstanding ties to the district, remains quietly confident.
"I've kept every promise," Horn says, "and I've worked hard to help the country and the people of our district."
Horn's son and campaign manager, Stephen Horn Jr., concedes that Mathews is a strong challenger but contends he's no match for the incumbent. His father, Horn Jr. says, benefits from having views that are closer to those of district residents than are Mathews'.
"A lot of people who logically should be with the Democrat are not," Horn Jr. says. "A lot of Democrats are either with (the elder Horn) or they're neutral."
Also on the ballot are Libertarian Lester W. Mueller and Peace and Freedom candidate Richard K. Green, who together garnered only 355 votes of more than 70,000 cast in the June primary.
For a year now, ever since Mathews declared his candidacy, his campaign operatives have been studying the numbers and Horn's record, and they like what they see.
For one thing, Democrats have a distinct edge in registration in the district--51%, compared to the Republicans' 36%. Many of the Democrats are newly registered and liberal-leaning, Mathews contends.
Local Democrats add that registration efforts in the past year have concentrated on Long Beach, with its campuses and its ethnic voters, rather than on the more conservative cities to the north.
In the June primary, Mathews actually outpolled Horn by more than 7,000 votes, though the Democrat was running unopposed and the incumbent faced a challenger.
At the same time, the Democrats say, Horn may have hurt himself by crossing party lines to vote for the Clinton Administration's crime bill, and by defying labor unions and Ross Perot supporters to back the North American Free Trade Agreement.
His support of the crime bill could hurt him with members of his own party, Mathews supporters speculate (while conceding that it could bolster his Democratic support).
Horn's NAFTA vote, the Democrats say, has alienated the district's Perot voters--most of whom supported Horn last time--and has prompted especially enthusiastic labor support for Mathews, who has taken an anti-NAFTA stand.
All of this amounts to a trend-bucking race in this widely proclaimed GOP year, contends Mathews' campaign manager, Noah Mamet. "What we have is one of only eight or 10 (House) seats (across the nation) where a Democrat stands to beat a Republican incumbent," he says.
But various political observers insist that such factors as the Democratic advantage in voter registration may be of little significance in a district where many Democrats are conservatives who have not hesitated to vote Republican in the past.