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In Campaign With Few National Themes to Propel It, GOP Goes Local

Politics: The strategy shift is leaving heavy footprints on the Hill, where Republican leaders are using their power to aid vulnerable incumbents.


WASHINGTON — Listen to Rep. George R. Nethercutt Jr. (R-Wash.), and this fall's House election sounds like a referendum on the future of dams on the Snake River. Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), meanwhile, is bragging about what he's done in Congress to clean up beaches. And Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) is spotlighting the concerns of his district's vast Armenian community.

With few major national issues dominating this year's campaign, many Republican House candidates are trying to win in November--and help the party retain control of the chamber--by focusing on local, often parochial, issues. And that political strategy is leaving heavy footprints on Capitol Hill's legislative agenda.

As this year's session draws to a close, GOP House leaders aggressively are using their power to help vulnerable incumbents get what they need--pork-barrel projects, pet legislation, hometown publicity--to score points with voters.

That is the main reason Rogan was given the green light to push an obscure bill condemning the slaughter of thousands of Armenians more than 75 years ago. House action on the measure, expected early this week, will fulfill a pledge made by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) when he campaigned in the Glendale area with Rogan, who is in a tough fight for reelection in a district where Armenian Americans form a crucial voting bloc.

It is hardly unusual for leaders of either party to try to help their weak incumbents. The Clinton administration recently sought to give a boost to Rep. Calvin Dooley (D-Visalia) by sending a Cabinet member to his district to announce a major economic development initiative. But the determination with which GOP leaders are pursuing such aims represents a shift in political strategy from recent years, when House Republicans tried to propel their candidates with broad national themes--most notably in 1994, when congressional candidates nationalized the campaign around a common conservative agenda, the "contract with America."

"Our strategy in this election cycle is completely different than the strategy in 1994," said James Wilkinson, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This time . . . many of our candidates feel like they are running for city council." The difference, in part, reflects a dramatic change in the political environment over the last six years. It is harder to run a nationalized campaign because polls show there is no single issue dominating the landscape the way anti-government sentiment did in the early and mid-1990s.

"It is harder to find things that get a great number of voters excited," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "There's not a major outcry about Washington, as there was in 1994, or concern about the economy, as there was in any number of elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s."

And to the extent that some issues resonate around the country, they are topics voters tend to associate with Democrats: health care, education, Social Security.

For that reason, it is Democrats who are trying to nationalize this year's congressional election. They are urging their candidates--regardless of the region--to campaign on expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs, regulating managed health care and shoring up Social Security. In response, GOP leaders have scrambled to offer their own legislative versions of Democratic priorities, an effort to blur distinctions between the parties.

But the more aggressive Republican approach has been to provide vulnerable incumbents opportunities to address their districts' local concerns. And that, in turn, has meant that year-end appropriation bills are laden with local projects.

"You can't point to a single vulnerable incumbent who hasn't been taken care of in the appropriations process," boasts Tony Rudy, deputy chief of staff to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). "Since Day One, we've asked our vulnerable members what they need and how we can help them get it. These guys don't have to run a one-size-fits-all race."

Earlier this year, for example, GOP leaders expedited a $50,000 appropriation sought by freshman Rep. Robert "Robin" Hayes (R-N.C.) to pay for the cost of razing a chicken plant in the North Carolina town of Hamlet. The plant burned nine years ago, but the charred remnants were never removed. (In a twist that underscored the intense politics around the project, the Hamlet City Council recently voted to reject the grant--a move some locals think was designed to deprive Hayes of favorable press.)

In the transportation agreement reached last week, GOP leaders included an additional $94 million for an interstate highway for the Arkansas district of Republican Rep. Jay Dickey. "They are worried about him," a senior GOP aide said.

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