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Local Loyalties May Spare Democrats From Disaster : Elections: GOP hopes for congressional dominance could founder in districts where voters favor familiarity.


MADISON, N.C. — In this part of Rockingham County, a rural stretch of rolling hills and light industry that cozies up to the Virginia border, most folks know that the place for breakfast is Fuzzy's Pit B-B-Q. The gravy comes thick and light brown and the hush puppies are fried crisp. The only bad part these days is the likelihood of running into a politician.

Just last week, for instance, Gene Hopper was listening intently as Richard Burr, a clean-cut young Republican running for "the U.S. Congress," as Burr likes to call it, delivered his pitch.

As Burr, a former appliance salesman, moved on down the counter, Hopper said he had to admit that, on most issues, he tends to side with Republicans. He doesn't like President Clinton at all, thank you. And after protection for the tobacco business, the thing that concerns him most is the right to bear arms--something he fears may be jeopardized by Democrats who talk about tougher gun laws.

Nonetheless, Hopper was still leaning toward A.P. (Sandy) Sands, the local Democratic state senator.

"I grew up with Sandy, and he's just a good man," said Hopper, who sported a North Carolina Wildlife Officers Assn. cap that matched his camouflage hunter's vest.

He said he's even a little annoyed by Burr's radio ads, which liken Sands to Clinton and ask the provocative question: "Do we need any more Bill Clintons in Washington?" Hopper feels certain Sandy is nothing like Bill.

"This may be the South," Hopper said. "We may be dumb. We may have been born at night. But we weren't born last night."

Reactions like that are wondrous to the ears of Democratic strategists. It is precisely such local attachments that give them hope that their candidates can escape what appears to be a rising Republican tide. With the election slightly more than two weeks away, polls forecast a Republican landslide that could give the party control of the Senate for the first time since 1986 and the House for the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.

Voters like Hopper are key to the Democrats' hopes of holding on.

The races in which Republicans hope to do best are the so-called open seats--districts in which the incumbent has decided not to run again. This year, there are 52 such seats in the House and nine in the Senate. Thirty-one of the open House seats belong to Democrats, and half of those are in Southern or Border states, where Clinton is particularly unwelcome. Six out of the nine open Senate seats are in Democratic hands.

In the Senate, Republican candidates appear solidly ahead in three open-seat races--Maine, Arizona and Ohio. Republican Spencer Abraham is deemed to be narrowly leading in Michigan. The contests for two other seats, Tennessee and Oklahoma, are much closer, and Democrats are hopeful they can hold onto the Oklahoma seat. Only one Republican open seat, in Minnesota, seems likely to switch over to the Democrats this year. The GOP is expected to hold on to the two other open seats, in Wyoming and Missouri.

Republicans need to pick up seven new seats to gain majority control of the Senate.

In the House, where Republicans would need a whopping 40-seat gain to wrest control, the situation is far more complex. A look at four open-seat races--two in North Carolina and one each in Texas and Florida--helps explain why.

The Democratic strategy in these races is to sell the notion that all politics is local and that all races are a choice between two individuals. Conversely, the Republicans are trying to make this election a referendum on the Clinton Administration's policies and on the President's performance.

Indeed, in North Carolina, the only person more unpopular than Clinton, opinion surveys reveal, is his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But linking Democrats to Clinton may not automatically produce the sure-fire results Republicans are hoping for. In many districts the lines between parties are more blurred than they were a decade ago. Much more may depend on the characteristics of individual candidates.

The Democratic tradition in North Carolina, for example, owes more to the late Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. than anyone now living. "I don't even know what a Bill Clinton Democrat is," said Sands, a rural trial lawyer whose demeanor is a mixture of striking candor and Southern charm. "But it couldn't be any worse than running as a Mike Dukakis Democrat," and Sands survived that.

If candidates are difficult to stereotype, so are voters.

In Texas, the 25th Congressional District in and around Houston is a sprawling, C-shaped oddity that encompasses 100 miles of oil refineries, a largely white suburb around the Johnson Space Center, Rice University and a low-income, predominantly minority section of Harris County.

The Democrat is Ken Bentsen Jr., former Harris County Democratic chairman and nephew of Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a Democrat who has been considered as conservative as many Republicans. The Republican, Gene Fontenot, is a millionaire doctor associated with the religious right.

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