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GOP can dare to dream of taking control

Republicans are pinching themselves. With barely two weeks left until Election Day, they are within striking distance of gaining control of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years.

Of the 35 seats up for election in the Senate, Republicans have a strong shot at gaining the seven seats needed to take back control, which they last held in 1986.

And they have a reasonable chance of gaining 40 House seats _ a huge win, but not unheard of during modern midterm elections. That would give them control of the House for the first time since 1954, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

For Republicans, the political planets have been shifting into alignment for months.

Two years after ousting President Bush and electing Democrat Bill Clinton, Americans tell pollsters they are disappointed in their "agent of change." They sense little has changed in Washington, and, because Democrats control the White House and Congress, voters are threatening to exact revenge on them.

Combine that with an unusually high number of congressional retirements and the GOP is right where it wants to be.

"We are doing everything we can to tell Republicans to make the election a referendum on Washington," says Steve Wagner, a GOP pollster.

It seems to be working.

From Maine to Arizona, Republicans hold commanding leads in the "open" seat races where incumbent senators are retiring. If the GOP simply wins the six open Democratic seats, it will be within one seat of Senate control. (Even that might be enough because Alabama boll weevil Richard Shelby is already entertaining the idea of switching to the GOP if Republicans get that close.)

The GOP appears every bit as strong when challenging Democratic incumbents.

From Democratic House Speaker Thomas Foley in Spokane, Wash., to acting Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sam Gibbons in Tampa, powerful veteran Democrats find themselves in career-threatening predicaments.

"People are so frustrated with government they've stopped trying to analyze who's doing a bad job and who's doing a good job," says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who now lectures at Harvard University. "Voters are just saying, "To heck with everybody; let's just start over.' "

Despite some legislative and foreign policy accomplishments, President Clinton is widely considered a liability for Democrats this election season. His popularity remains below 50 percent in virtually all polls.

"Clinton's approval ratings should shock no one," says Democratic strategist Dawn Laguens, who notes Clinton has never expanded his appeal beyond the 43 percent of the public that elected him in 1992. The remaining 57 percent of the electorate supported more conservative candidates _ Bush and Ross Perot. "We never went out there and consolidated anything. That is what we are paying the price for."

As the party in control, Democrats are being blamed for what looks like a very unproductive session in Congress. "If Democrats are paying a price it is because this town looks gridlocked," says Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg.

Even in victory Washington Democrats often have looked bad.

Since the spring, Democrats had been looking forward to passage of a tough anti-crime law as fodder for their campaigns, thus stealing a popular political issue from Republicans. The president pledged to pass legislation that would put more police on the streets, build more prisons and limit gun purchases. But a unified Republican assault and Democratic infighting initially derailed the effort. In the end, it was actually Republicans who gave in and helped deliver what most figured would be an easy election-year legislative win for Democrats.

"The fact the Democrats couldn't unite and pull that through caused and raised many doubts in the public," Greenberg says.

Such struggles, the political misfortunes of some venerable Democratic lawmakers, and the retirement of dozens of others, have Republicans positively giddy about their chances. They talk of how Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich has a realistic chance of becoming House speaker. And Sen. Robert Dole, the Kansas Republican who is minority leader, now is within reach of again becoming majority leader, the post he ceded when Democrats recaptured the Senate in 1986.

Across the country, prominent liberals are fighting for survival or simply giving up. Some of the highest-profile Senate races show:

Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, the nation's best-known liberal and one-time presidential contender, may be ousted by a wealthy businessman named Mitt Romney, the son of former Michigan governor George Romney.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Robb of Virginia are in dead-heat races against conservative challengers with enormous bank accounts. GOP Rep. Michael Huffington has already spent $17-million of his own money to blanket California's airwaves, while Iran-Contra figure Oliver North has raised that much largely through a sophisticated direct mail operation.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell's seat appears likely to go to Maine Republican Rep. Olympia Snowe.

Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum's hopes of passing his seat on to his son-in-law, lawyer Joel Hyatt, are fading fast. For months, Hyatt has been trailing in the polls.

Even Vice President Al Gore's old Tennessee seat may go Republican. A Howard Baker protege and character actor named Fred Thompson is winning converts as he crosses the state in a red pickup truck.

There was a time when incumbency carried advantages. But today, the prestige of having clout on Capitol Hill has turned into a millstone around many Democrats' necks.

Foley, the most powerful House member as speaker, received a paltry 35 percent in his district's open primary Sept. 20.

"Tom Foley is in trouble because he represents the institution," says Edwards, the former GOP congressman. "If you want to send a message, what better way than getting rid of the guy who is the symbol."

Yet there is evidence these liberal icons have heeded the warning signs and, equipped with plenty of cash, some may be able to salvage their careers. And electoral tidal waves in Congress have often been averted by the adage that while most people dislike Congress, they tend to like their own congressman.

"One thing that seems to mitigate the cynicism and anger out there is face to face contact with constituents," says Mike Casey, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

As Edwards puts it: "Tom Foley will have been able to go back and change himself from the symbol of Washington to: "You remember old Tom.' "

Perhaps more worrisome to Democratic strategists are the fates of less visible Democrats _ those who are running to replace departing Democrats.

Congressional Quarterly magazine, an affiliate of the Times, rates 40 of the 435 House races as tossups. CQ says that in another 58 districts, there is a legitimate chance the seat will change parties. And of all these 98 hotly contested seats, 75 are currently held by Democrats.

The Democrats may fare worst in the South. Conservative Democrats retired in record numbers this year, creating enormous opportunities for the GOP.

"Republicans have realistic chances of winning a majority of southern House seats, a majority of southern Senate seats and a majority of southern governor's seats," says Rice University professor Earl Black, who specializes in southern politics.

Many of these national themes are playing out in Florida this fall.

Like Foley and Kennedy, Gibbons, the Tampa Democrat, is finding that his new clout on Capitol Hill may not translate into votes at home. After laboring in the shadow of Chicago Democrat Dan Rostenkowski for decades, the World War II veteran finally took the reins this year of one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Yet his opponent, Republican Mark Sharpe, is making headway with a simple theme that downplays Gibbons' chairmanship: "He's been there too long. It's time for a change."

Democrats Earl Hutto of Pensacola and Jim Bacchus of Merritt Island have both opted for retirement, leaving control of their increasingly conservative districts in doubt.

But the Democrats say they won't go quietly. Greenberg and other strategists say Republicans may have peaked too early.

Clinton has hit the stump, helping candidates raise money and enunciating key themes. In recent speeches, he has attempted to frame the election as a choice between the slow but steady progress of his administration versus the "trickle down, voodoo economics" of the 1980s. He will also travel to the Middle East this week, in a trip some advisers hope will increase his stature as a world leader.

"We can admit that objectively the guy deserves some credit, particularly for his handling of Iraq," says Republican pollster Wagner.

But for a party that has not held the Senate since 1986 and the House since the 1954 elections, these are heady times. Even if the GOP captures just 20-25 seats instead of the 40 needed to win control of the House, their numbers will approach 200, a level they have not reached since 1958. Either way, the balance of power shifts to a more conservative Congress.

"A month ago it was great euphoria; today it's almost shock," says Edwards, who keeps in touch with his former GOP colleagues. "Republicans are privately going into closets and pulling out lists of seats they're going to win and they're afraid to walk out with a smile. They don't want to be overconfident."

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