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Democrats Spot Rays of Electoral Hope : Campaigns: Recent economic, foreign policy gains by Clinton brighten a dismal election outlook. But the party's negatives remain formidable.

October 26, 1994|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Suddenly, Democrats can see a few glimmers of hope on the otherwise bleak horizon of the 1994 midterm elections.

For perhaps the first time, the Clinton presidency--which until now has been one of the governing party's biggest burdens--is providing at least the opportunity for Democrats to gain political ground. These are some of the developments:

* On the economic front, comprising the bundle of issues which more than any other helped Bill Clinton defeat George Bush, the President this week was able to announce favorable news about deficit reduction while a new poll showed that an increasing number of Americans believe the nation's economy is on the upswing.

* In foreign affairs, which until recently had been regarded as Clinton's weakest suit, Clinton's success in dealing with crises in the Persian Gulf and Haiti has already boosted his stock in the polls. More political rewards are anticipated from this week's trip to the Middle East, where the President is to witness the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.

* The stunning decision by New York City Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to endorse hard-pressed New York Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in his bid for reelection transforms into an asset what had been another political handicap--the party's longtime commitment to the nation's cities. That is true not only in Cuomo's own campaign against Republican George E. Pataki, but also, according to Democrats, in other states trying to contend with the problems of huge urban centers.

Assuming the role of chief Administration political spokesman while Clinton is overseas, Vice President Al Gore sought Tuesday to make the most of the improved political environment.

In a luncheon speech to the Center for National Policy, a Democratic think tank, he noted that the previous conventional wisdom that Clinton is "somehow wanting" in foreign affairs is no longer operative. And Gore cited the President's trip to the Middle East at the invitation of Israel and Jordan as evidence that "America is on the rise again. America is strong again. America is respected again."

After reviewing Clinton's accomplishments on the economic front, which he said had been made despite intense partisan opposition from the GOP in Congress, Gore declared: "I believe the tide is turning--that in these next two weeks voters will increasingly decide to reject those who put party first."

But most independent analysts viewed that judgment as premature, contending that it would take far more to reverse the fundamental negative factors working against the Democrats--the traditional tendency of the party in power to lose ground in off-year elections, the greater number of House and Senate seats and governorships that Democrats have at stake compared to the opposition party and the continuing relatively low approval rating for the President--despite a recent upswing.

"Clinton has had a couple of good weeks and that's better than for him to have two weeks of utter disasters," said Merle Black, a political analyst at Emory University in Atlanta. But Black said that he doubts Democratic candidates will change their strategy, which for the most part involves keeping their distance from the President and stressing local concerns and their own individual records.

Nor does he expect recent developments to cause Republican candidates to relent in their attacks on Clinton's performance. "They are still going to tell voters he is a liberal, that he wants to expand government, that he's going to make you pay too much for stuff you didn't want in the first place," Black said.

Still, Black conceded that in states where Clinton ran strongly in 1992, the progress on the economic front and the success abroad could be used as talking points by Democratic candidates. "And at the least, it will make the President less of a drag" for his party's candidates, Black said.

As for Republicans, they wasted little time in trying to minimize Clinton's accomplishments and pressed their latest attack--focusing on a recently disclosed memorandum by Alice Rivlin, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. The document discusses possible cuts in entitlement benefits and increases in taxes to help cut the budget deficit.

Noting that the White House had ruled out most of the entitlement cuts mentioned in the memo, GOP strategist William Kristol, in a memorandum distributed to party leaders, said: "What is striking is the failure of the President to rule out any of the tax increases."

"This Administration has already raised taxes once," Kristol said. "Our suspicions that they would like to do so again are confirmed by the Rivlin memo."

But for the moment, Democrats preferred to accentuate other, positive news from the White House.

Robert Healy, a Washington lobbyist and fund-raiser for Democratic congressional candidates, cited a new Washington Post-ABC News poll which showed approval of Clinton's job performance climbing to 49% with 48% disapproving, compared to 44% approval and 51% disapproval last month.

"This has to be a boost for Democratic candidates if only because the last two or three months have been so damn dismal," he said. "So when you get a boost, it takes on an extra dimension."

* RELATED STORY: A35

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