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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / CONGRESS : Democrats Downplaying Ties to Clinton : Vulnerable incumbents stress their independence as GOP seeks to exploit President's drop in popularity.


FRESNO — Rep. Richard H. Lehman, a conservative Democrat from the San Joaquin Valley, admires President Clinton and thinks he is doing some good things for America.

But the only reference to Clinton in Lehman's television commercials as he fights for reelection is not one likely to get him invited to the White House for dinner.

Lehman, seeking a seventh term, is trying to distance himself politically from Clinton, and he is not alone among Democratic incumbents scrambling to survive what Republicans hope will be a GOP landslide nationwide.

Several Democratic congressmen from California who find themselves in tight races with Republican challengers are eager to shed their connection to the President, who carried California handily in 1992 but has since seen his popularity drop by about 20 points.

Sensing a chance to narrow the Democrats' 30-22 edge in the state's congressional delegation, the Republicans are determined not to let the Democrats edge away from Clinton.

A Republican TV commercial in use across the nation for weeks begins with a picture of Clinton that "morphs" into a picture of the local Democratic incumbent. Last week, the Republicans unveiled three more anti-Clinton commercials, including one that advises voters to "send Clinton's Congress home."

To counteract this strategy, Lehman reminds voters in his TV commercial of his bitter fight with the Clinton Administration over water, a life-and-death issue in the California farm belt:

"This year Washington threatened to shut off federal irrigation water unless valley growers surrendered to outrageous demands. Raised on a valley farm, Rick Lehman fought the federal threats all the way to the White House. Washington backed down, and our farmers kept their water . . . Rick Lehman, independent, like the valley."

The commercial then displays a headline from the Fresno Bee: "Lehman Vows Clinton Will Pay."

Lehman and other incumbents are hoping their familiarity with voters and their fund-raising advantage will help repel the Republican challenge and the anti-incumbent mood of voters.

In addition, the Democrats are deriding the GOP's "Contract With America" as proof that the wanna-be congressmen are more interested in ideological purity than in serving their districts. And Clinton is enjoying a slight uptick in the polls because of his foreign policy successes.

Still, those factors have not translated into a willingness by embattled Democratic incumbents to embrace their President. When Clinton came to the San Francisco Bay Area a week ago only two San Mateo County congressmen, both with easy reelection races, came to greet him.

The need to assert independence from Clinton is particularly keen among three first-termers from California who are seen as vulnerable.

Rep. Dan Hamburg, a liberal Democrat from Mendocino County, jumps at the chance to tell audiences of his deep philosophical differences with Clinton over trade policies, Somalia, health care and relations with China.

Hamburg feels close to Clinton as part of the same generation of politicians who were college protesters against the Vietnam War. He says that Clinton is bravely tackling issues ignored by the Republicans.

But Hamburg has no plans to distribute a campaign brochure that he had used in the primary displaying side-by-side pictures of him and the President, a brochure with the headline, "We're Starting to Make Government Work for Your Family."

Rep. Lynn Schenk, a "business-oriented" Democrat from San Diego, has a TV commercial saying she "stood up" to the President to vote for a balanced budget amendment.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) makes the same pitch during speeches, as well as emphasizing that she favored even deeper budget cuts than the President. "I have not been afraid to take on the Clinton Administration," she tells audiences.

So insistent is the anti-Clinton rhetoric in some races that even some veteran Democratic incumbents are becoming exasperated.

"It's clear our Republican opponent would rather run against Bill Clinton than against us," said Craig Miller, campaign manager for nine-term Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills). "But it's not going to work.

"Tony Beilenson has a very close relationship with the voters of his district, and the voters know there is a big difference between President Clinton and congressman Beilenson."

Schenk says that if her Republican opponent, Brian Bilbray, "wants to run against Bill Clinton so badly, let him sign up for the 1996 presidential primary."

Bilbray, a San Diego County supervisor, has mockingly offered to pay Clinton's air fare to San Diego so he can campaign for Schenk.

Lehman's opponent, former Mariposa County Supervisor George Radanovich, went a step further. He held a news conference flanked by a life-size cardboard cutout of Clinton and offered to pay both air fare and motel bill if Clinton would come to Fresno to campaign for Lehman.

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