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Big Money Streams Into House Contests

Elections: The parties are on course for record spending. About 40 races hold balance of power.


MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a hotel ballroom in this sleepy state capital, hundreds of the GOP faithful have paid up to $1,000 each to eat lunch and hear Vice President Dick Cheney give a fill-in-the-blank campaign speech.

On this summer day, Cheney is extolling Mike Rogers, the Republican candidate running here to keep an open House seat in the party's column.

At stake, Cheney warns, is nothing less than who runs the American government and the fate of President Bush's war on terrorism.

Even before the main course arrives--a form of beef--Rogers' aides spread word that the event has raked in $200,000 to help the state legislator in a tight matchup against conservative Democrat Joe Turnham. Before leaving, Cheney also poses for snapshots with donors. The price: $1,000 a click.

For the Bush White House, such rituals are by now routine. In all, Cheney has raised money for 31 House candidates nationwide, and Bush for an additional 11.

Democratic leaders also have been blitzing the country to shake down donors and pump up candidates. The intensity of the duel reflects the House's narrow partisan divide: Republicans control the chamber by the slimmest margin since the 1950s. A Democratic gain of just six seats would end eight years of GOP rule.

With Labor Day marking the start of the stretch drive in an election year, the field of battle is taking shape in House races--and a gusher of party and special-interest money is flowing into crucial television advertising.

Although all 435 House seats are up for election, only about 40 are considered truly competitive. If Republicans hang on to their narrow majority, Bush will retain the power to move much of his agenda through Congress in the second half of his term, even if Democrats keep the Senate. But if Democrats grab the House while holding onto the Senate, the party can seize the legislative offensive.

No one knows that better than Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who as the Democratic House leader reluctantly saw Republicans lay claim to the speaker's gavel in January 1995. Ever since, he has fought to get it back, chipping away at the GOP's majority in the last three elections.

In a swing through the Northeast, upper Midwest and Southwest last week, Gephardt hammered on themes he hopes will carry Democrats to power: preventing the privatization of Social Security, guaranteeing a prescription drug benefit for the elderly under Medicare and punishing a GOP leadership he said was in thrall to "extreme right-wing special interests."

In a telephone interview from Arizona, where Democrats are seeking to win two newly created seats, Gephardt noted that modern political history shows that the president's party traditionally loses House seats in midterm elections. And surveys, including a new Times Poll, show many voters are fretting about pocketbook issues and fear the country is headed down the wrong track.

"You've got a general climate in the economy and the country that will have voters looking for change when they hit that button in the voting booth" on Nov. 5, he said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot acknowledged Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the GOP had to "swim against the tide of history" to make gains in this midterm election, but he insisted the party is poised to knock off some Democrats for enough seats to retain power.

One thing that could work in the Republicans' favor is the debate over a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the focus on Iraq "sucks the oxygen out of some of the other issues in the campaign."

On the domestic front, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the GOP could claim credit for passing a raft of bills in the House on issues such as prescription drug benefits, corporate accountability, tax cuts and homeland security.

"Our candidates have good things to talk about. You put the calculus together, and I think we're in pretty good shape," Hastert said.

But he acknowledged the partisan dogfight will continue until election day.

Independent analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook, two leading House election monitors, agree that neither party seems poised to rack up major gains.

Rothenberg said his head tells him Republicans could pick up a seat or two, but his gut predicts the Democrats will eke out gains. But he is unsure whether the Democrats will reach their magic number of plus-6. Cook said the GOP's fate depends on whether a souring national mood curdles into an anti-incumbent backlash.

Amid this uncertainty, there is one constant: the importance of money. Experts predict fund-raising totals for 2002 campaigns could well break records set in 2000, with many of those dollars being poured into a tiny number of districts.

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