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NEWS ANALYSIS

Clinton Storm Imperils New Crop of Democrats

September 23, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

BATON ROUGE, La. — Marjorie McKeithen, the articulate and energetic Democratic congressional candidate here, was supposed to be a marquee example of the party's most innovative strategy for regaining control of the House this year. Instead, she may inadvertently become a revealing test of whether President Clinton's troubles will snuff out his party's best prospects this fall.

McKeithen is one of about a dozen Democratic House candidates who combine a lunch-bucket economic agenda with socially conservative positions like opposition to abortion that are rare among Democratic officials. The aim is to bring back into play culturally conservative but economically populist swing districts that the GOP has dominated in recent years.

Throughout the campaign's early months, the strategy has shown promise, with McKeithen and several other Democratic cultural conservatives showing more strength than the party has displayed for years in their areas. But these socially traditional districts are precisely the places where Republicans expect the sharpest voter backlash now that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has delivered his report outlining his case for impeachment against Clinton.

"This is where the president clearly does hurt the chances of his party retaking control of Congress, because they do have to win some of these seats and he is more of a problem there than anywhere else," says Tom Cole, an Oklahoma City-based Republican pollster.

As Democrats everywhere struggle to build a firewall against Clinton's problems, this group of conservative House challengers may face the most urgent construction project of all.

So far, party officials say, only one of the Democratic dozen has called on Clinton to resign--former state party chairman Joe Turnham in Alabama, perhaps the most socially conservative member of the bunch. But the others have wasted no time in distancing themselves from the president, even though in 1996 he carried several of these districts--including the predominantly working-class, racially mixed district around Baton Rouge that McKeithen is trying to take from Republican Rep. Richard H. Baker, a well-financed six-term incumbent.

Here in Louisiana, Baker already has pressed the issue by calling on Clinton to step down. But McKeithen is not far behind him.

At a candidate forum on Monday night in Baton Rouge, she said it was premature to say whether she would vote for impeachment until she has had an opportunity "to review all the facts." But she has also denounced Clinton sharply for his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, and in an interview she expressed little hesitancy about urging Clinton's removal if all the evidence ultimately supports the conclusion that he broke the law. McKeithen says Clinton may have to resign if the scandal paralyzes him for months and "we are having trouble getting on with the business of the country."

'Candidates Who Fit the Districts'

As might be expected, culturally conservative Democratic challengers are most heavily clustered in the South. But the party also has recruited candidates who fit that profile in swing districts in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. "Our approach was that if we are going to compete in some of these conservative districts, we absolutely had to have candidates who fit the districts," says Dan Sallick, communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The strongest contenders in the group include Ronnie Shows, a state transportation commissioner in Mississippi; Pennsylvania attorney Pat Casey, the son of former governor Bob Casey, and Ken Lucas, a former county judge in Kentucky, all of whom are bidding for open seats now held by the GOP. State Rep. David Phelps is favored to hold an open Democratic congressional seat in Illinois. The best hopes against GOP incumbents include attorney Don Bevill, the son of former Alabama Rep. Tom Bevill; McKeithen; and former Kentucky Atty. Gen. Chris Gorman, who is challenging a formidable opponent in Republican Rep. Anne M. Northup.

All of these Democrats oppose legal abortion. Most of them, like McKeithen, oppose gun control measures, such as the ban on assault weapons approved in 1994. And many would back a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

But although some--like Lucas in Kentucky--take generally conservative positions on economic issues as well, most are running campaigns that emphasize this year's Democratic trinity: preserving the budget surplus for Social Security, regulating health maintenance organizations and increasing education spending, primarily to reduce class sizes. Indeed, many of these candidates embody the mix of views that defined the blue-collar Reagan Democrats who migrated toward the GOP in the 1980s: broad cultural and fiscal conservatism leavened by continuing support for government as an engine of opportunity and a source of economic security.

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