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For Some Candidates, There's No Place Like Home

The useful work this week is in the trenches, the local races that can tip the thin balances in Congress. Convention parties aside, there's campaigning to do.


WASHINGTON — Guess who's not coming to the Democratic convention this week: Many of the candidates who will make or break the party's effort to win control of the House.

Democrat Lauren Beth Gash plans to be going door-to-door in the Chicago suburbs, asking people to elect her to the House. In eastern Montana, Nancy Keenan intends to be barnstorming a bunch of tiny rural towns. In northern New Jersey, Maryanne Connelly is lined up to work the county fair crowds.

All that down-home campaigning during convention week is emblematic of a basic political reality as the two parties fight simultaneous battles for control of Congress and the White House: The outcome of the congressional contest seems likely to hinge less on broad national political trends than on very local developments in a handful of races nationwide.

"I hope the convention is great," said Gash, a state legislator who is one of the party's most-touted House candidates. "But all politics is local. The most important thing you can do is not just talk to voters but listen to voters. That's why I'm staying in my district."

That's also part of the reason congressional Democrats seem remarkably blase about the stream of polls that showed their presidential standard-bearer, Al Gore, running behind Republican nominee George W. Bush before, during and after the GOP convention. Democrats are unfazed not only because they expect the gap to narrow after Gore gets his own post-convention "bounce" in the polls but also because they don't see their fates inextricably tied to his.

"Even if [Gore] doesn't win, I think we'll take the House back," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a member of the House Democratic leadership.

The political pressures are so high--and the potential payoff of appearing at the convention so dubious--that party leaders at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee actually are urging many House candidates in tough races to stay home and keep campaigning rather than come to Los Angeles.

The fight for the House is less prominent to the public than the presidential race, but for members of Congress, it is just as intense. The contest for the House is the closest in almost 50 years: Fighting to win back the majority they lost in 1994, Democrats need to pick up only seven seats (one, being vacated by Democrat-turned-Republican Matthew G. Martinez of Monterey Park, is a certain pickup because no GOP candidate is running to replace him).

Democrats also seek to reduce the GOP's 54-46 advantage in the Senate. The party's prospects there improved last month after Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia died and was replaced by a Democrat, former Gov. Zell Miller.

But virtually every political domino needs to fall right for the Democrats to take control of the Senate, while the House remains up for grabs. Because most House incumbents are running unopposed or face only token opposition, only about a couple dozen seats out of the chamber's 435 are seriously contested. The outcome will be determined by that handful of elections, which includes at least four in California.

"We recognize that California is a country unto itself on election night," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We can have the country going one way and California doing its own thing. We don't breathe easy on holding the House until the California results are in."

Both parties are pouring record amounts of cash into the competitive races. As of June 30, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had raised $60 million--more than twice the $26 million they had raised at that point two years ago. The GOP campaign committee had raised $90 million--compared with $60 million in 1998.

For House Democrats, the prospects for victory are tantalizing. For almost six years, they have been chafing in the subordinate status they were thrust into when they lost the House in 1994 after decades of dominance.

Republicans still have the vast advantages of incumbency, which are especially prevalent in times of economic prosperity like this. Their morale has been lifted by the perceived success of the GOP convention. And in localities around the country, several surprise developments have cut their way. For example, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a popular Virginia Democrat, switched his status to independent and generally votes with the Republicans. Rep. Pat Danner (D-Mo.), a conservative Democrat, unexpectedly retired, turning a safe Democratic seat into a real fight.

But Democrats have their own advantages. They are far more competitive financially than is usually the case. Indeed, the Democratic campaign committee has more cash on hand as it heads into the crucial final months of the campaign: $37 million, compared with the GOP's $22 million.

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