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Incumbency (n): a four-letter word

In 30 seconds, they want you to know this:

They prefer the coffee of local diners over the champagne at fancy French restaurants.

They are uncomfortable in dark suits, cozy in plaid shirts.

They go to church, work hard and, most importantly, do not look anything like Bill Clinton.

Now appearing in living rooms across America: the congressional candidates of 1994.

As the final countdown to the Nov. 8 elections begins, the races for the House and Senate have shifted almost entirely to television, an expensive, fast-paced medium that capitalizes on style and often shortchanges substance.

Fueled by polls that report the public remains disgusted by the ways of Washington, the political imagemakers are portraying this year's candidates as average citizens who don't want to go to Capitol Hill but will for the good of the country.

Judging from the commercials, the best way to get into Congress is to bash it. And if you're already in office, the best way to stay in Congress is, well, to bash it.

"Dick Bryan _ sick and tired of the mess in Washington and doing something about it," intones one spot for the Nevada Democrat who is seeking a second term.

For those taking on incumbents, the TV messages are a chance to paint the officeholder as stale or co-opted by Washington's elitist political culture _ or both.

In Washington state, where House Speaker Thomas Foley is under serious attack, his challenger's ad asks voters to recall 1964, the year "Bonanza was the top TV show, Lyndon Johnson was president and Tom Foley was elected to Congress. . . . Except for Tom, a lot's changed in 30 years."

In Indiana, Democratic challenger Mike Harmless depicts Republican John Myers as a perk- addicted incumbent, while he himself is the man with the "Hoosier hometown values."

"Membership has its privileges," the Harmless ad says, "and after 28 years, John Myers knows them all."

In Montana, Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican seeking a second term, tries to pre-empt being painted as part of the system. His ad shows champagne glasses clinking and limousines speeding past the Capitol dome, and warns: "In this town, the special interests are always out to get their hands on your money."

Many candidates, "are being forced onto the negative bandwagon because the voters are out in front of them," said American University professor Lewis Wolfson.

That means Republicans and Democrats alike are aiming their vitriol at not only each other, but criminals, bureaucrats, lobbyists and, of course, President Clinton.

In Arizona, Republican Senate contender Jon Kyl is using a spoof of the television game show Jeopardy to tie his Democratic opponent to Clinton and the retiring Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who was embroiled in the Keating Five scandal.

The category is "Politics as usual" says the game show host. The answer is: "Supports the liberal Democratic leadership 92 percent of the time."

Not surprisingly, "Who is Sam Coppersmith?" is a contestant's correct response.

Some Republicans have unearthed snapshots of their Democratic opponents standing next to the unpopular president. Increasingly, though, others are taking advantage of modern technology to transform a picture of their opponent's face into Clinton's. The technique is known as "morphing," named for the popular children's show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers _ characters that transform themselves into superheroes.

This media technique is becoming so popular that the political jargon in Washington now includes the phrase: "He got morphed."

Rep. Mike Synar says he was "morphed" in the closing days of his primary, in which he was defeated in his bid for a ninth term. "It brought my numbers way down," the Oklahoma Democrat said of the TV spot in which his face evolved into Clinton's.

Despite his own loss, Synar argues that voters increasingly see through advertising paid for by politicians. He says direct mail from groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association does more to influence voters.

Many of the candidates have decided that the best antidote to the public's cynicism is some good old fashioned elbow grease. Former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft, in his Senate bid, has taken a page from Bob Graham's successful campaigns in Florida and is laboring in stores, factories and farms as part of a "working tour" of the state featured in his ads.

Some of the hottest new political faces this year have found success with this TV recipe: Highlight that you have no government service (or just don't mention it), wear casual shirts (usually plaid) and scowl (out of concern about what is going on in Washington).

Leaning on a red pickup truck and wearing a plaid shirt reminiscent of the early campaigns of Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles, Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson promises a "major shakeup" if elected to the Senate.

Thompson has an interesting resume: He was a lawyer who served the Senate Watergate Committee, but he is better known in Hollywood, where he has worked as a tough-guy character actor, with parts in such films such as The Hunt for Red October. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the acting ends and real-life stumping begins.

"They're out of touch and we're out of patience," Thompson says in one spot, failing to mention his years working on Capitol Hill. "We need somebody on the inside of that place working for us."

Dane Strother, the consultant making commercials for Thompson's opponent, complains that the truck is rented and the plaid shirts are brand new. But, he grudgingly acknowledges, the ads are "real smart."

With two weeks to go to Election Day, political novice Thompson is leading in the polls.