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POLITICS : Races With GOP Incumbents Will Test Winds of Voter Anger : Delaware Senate contest is a case in point. If Democratic challenger wins, it may hint that ballot bashing is against long-termers more than party in power.


WILMINGTON, Del. — Striving to unseat this state's long-entrenched senior senator in the November elections, an aggressive challenger is vowing to "send a wake-up call to Washington" and pledging not to seek more than two terms on Capitol Hill.

Much the same strategy is being used by Republican candidates around the country as they seek to capitalize on the public's distaste for incumbents. The difference here in Delaware is that the challenger is a Democrat, state Atty. Gen. Charlie Oberly, and the incumbent is four-term Republican William V. Roth Jr.

The outcome of the campaigns in Delaware and two other states where Democrats have a reasonable chance to unseat incumbent Republican senators will help to illuminate the prospects for the 1996 election by testing the conflicting explanations of the national mood offered by the two political parties.

Are the Democrats right in contending that voters are generally sore at all members of Congress, most of whom just happen to be Democrats? Or are the Republicans correct in claiming that voter resentment is a specific reaction to Democratic control of both Congress and the White House?

An upset victory here would provide great comfort to Democrats nationally as they struggle to maintain their hold on the Senate. Needing a net gain of seven seats to oust the Democratic majority, Republicans are hoping not only to win seats left open by Democratic retirements but also to unseat Democratic incumbents, more than half a dozen of whom are in jeopardy.

By contrast, Democrats privately concede they have a plausible chance of turning out only three Republican incumbent senators--Roth, Conrad Burns in Montana and Slade Gorton in Washington. Some consider the Delaware lawmaker their best target simply because he has been around so long, ranking 10th among all senators in seniority and sixth in his own party.

Oberly has made Roth's tenure the central theme of his campaign, arguing that the senator has lost touch with voters. It's a tactic that has led Roth's staff to cry foul.

"The attorney general is running a campaign based on age discrimination," said Jo Anne Barnhart, Roth's campaign manager. She specifically cites an Oberly television commercial that alters the speed of taped footage to show the 73-year-old Roth trudging along the campaign trail in slow motion. "It's a real distortion."

Oberly, 47, argues that Roth "has made age an issue by failing to show up for joint appearances" and complains that the senator refuses to debate him on television.

The two campaigns also squabble about the length of Roth's lead. Oberly's aides contend that their candidate, who started out 30 percentage points behind, now trails by only a single-digit margin. Aides to Roth insist that he still holds a comfortable advantage.

Delaware seems an unlikely place to exploit anti-incumbent fever. Roth's Democratic colleague in the Senate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., is serving his fourth term. John Williams, the Republican whom Roth succeeded in 1970, served four full terms before retiring. No incumbent running statewide has been defeated in 10 years.

Analysts say Delaware incumbents have long careers because voters are practical enough to realize that as citizens of the state with the sixth-smallest population, their interests benefit from the extra prerogatives that come with Capitol Hill seniority.

"I don't worry about people staying in office too long," said Roth supporter Benjamin Perona, a retired businessman who showed up at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post last week to watch Roth get that group's endorsement. "They get to be chairmen of big committees and they stay there and hold power."

As Roth likes to point out, he is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, a forum that allowed him some years back to expose such examples of government waste as the Navy's $640 toilet seat. He also ranks third in seniority among Republicans on the Finance Committee, and in the late 1970s, he joined with then-Rep. Jack Kemp of New York in promoting sharp cuts in income tax rates. That idea became the foundation of President Ronald Reagan's supply-side economic policies.

Roth sought to stress the benefits of his incumbency at a rare joint appearance with Oberly last week before members of Wilmington Women in Business, claiming that he is in a strong position to push for tax proposals to help small business as well as expansion of individual retirement accounts. Delaware, he claimed, needs his "power and experience to have a strong voice in Washington."

By contrast, Oberly made a highly personal pitch, recalling how under his joint-custody arrangement with his ex-wife, he had taken over much of the burden of rearing their young children while she concentrated on finishing medical school.

"I can't be your gender," he told the women in attendance, "but I can understand your concerns."

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