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Read fine print before you vote

A few weeks ago 300 or so Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sign a "Contract with America." Voters need to carefully read this contract, especially the fine print, before they sign off on it in next month's elections.

Voodoo economics is back, packaged this time by Rep. Newt Gingrich, who would become speaker of the House if Republicans gain majority control of the lower chamber. The only thing the GOP campaign manifesto doesn't offer is Confederate dollars to pay the cost of the popular pledges.

It has something for nearly everyone. Welfare reform, a balanced budget amendment, term limits and bigger military budgets. Tax cuts and tax credits galore _ a $500 per child tax credit, a cut in the capital gains tax, a tax break for two-income married couples, tax favors for Social Security recipients and, of course, tax cuts on business. Sound familiar?

Mind you, the Republicans are not promising they will deliver on all of these things, only that if they win control of Congress they will bring them to a vote in the first 100 days of the Dole-Gingrich reign on Capitol Hill.

The Republican contract has not passed the credibility test with reputable economists and independent budget analysts, who assume it is a campaign document and not a serious agenda. The Republicans estimate that the plan would cost the Treasury about $150-billion over five years. They insist they can pay for it with spending cuts but are careful not to be too specific about what programs they would cut.

President Clinton, who senses that the "fog is beginning to clear in America," is trying to get his party's craven candidates to attack the Republican contract for what he thinks it is: a $1-trillion throwback to Reaganomics. "There is no clear notion of how this is going to be paid for," Clinton said. "The only option is the way it was paid for before: higher deficits and cuts in everything else, from Medicare to veterans' benefits."

Democrats appear reluctant to join their president in charging the Republicans on this issue, especially now that some polls have detected a "warm" feeling among voters for the Reagan years. Rattled Democrats think their best chance is to run as crime-fighters and keep a safe distance from Clinton. They may yet regret it.

The British news magazine The Economist, which is not known for pulling its punches with Clinton, suggests in its latest issue that Republicans may have peaked too soon and suggested that Democrats ought to reconsider their "Clinton Who?" strategy now that he is "twirling an array of successes abroad."

The magazine acknowledged its confusion over why the booming American economy has failed to give a political lift to the president and his party. Maybe Clinton's foreign policy successes _ Haiti, Iraq and North Korea _ will be different, it figures. "There is no reason to suppose that Americans have discounted presidential influence over foreign policy in the way they seem to have done with the economy," says The Economist.

That may make sense from the British perspective, but this election year defies rational analysis. The latest polls show that Clinton's approval rating inching up, primarily because of his unexpected emergence as a foreign policy president. The bad news is that the same polls found that Clinton's gain is not rubbing off on Democrats in general.

Last week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found that political climate is becoming increasingly hostile for Democrats. Among other things, it appears that voters prefer the Republican view on many key issues. For example, the poll showed that when given a preference, registered voters favor Republicans to Democrats 38 percent to 23 percent on taxes. On the economy, it's 30 percent to 22 percent. On crime, 28 percent to 23 percent.

What is not clear is to what extent issues such as crime, taxes and the economy really figure into the mood of the electorate. The poll results are beginning to suggest that the election may not be the referendum on Clinton's presidency Republicans would like it to be. In fact, 54 percent of registered voters sampled said whether a congressional candidate supported or opposed Clinton would not be a factor in making up their minds.

It is more likely that this election will turn on people's deeper disaffection. Congress, which is controlled by Democrats, has become a symbol of everything people resent about politics and government. As voters prepare to vent their anger and cynicism, Democrats should make up their minds to stand or fall on principles. It's pathetic to see Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, who has a shot at becoming Senate Majority Leader if he wins re-election, pandering to voters on crime and school prayer. Or a good governor like Florida's Lawton Chiles flailing at Republican Jeb Bush on trivial matters.

If they have the courage, the Democrats can come out of this election with their self-respect and convictions, win or lose.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.