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House Speaker Foley faced with the fight of his career

He is the institution who cannot act like one, the silver-haired speaker of the House who quotes Winston Churchill in the other Washington but is forced to shoulder a buffalo rifle here to prove he is still Tom Foley of eastern Washington.

Trying to save a 30-year congressional career, Foley has endured an unusual number of onion-smothered chili dogs, insinuations that because he has no children he is out of touch with the concerns of families, and disgruntled questions about why he built a million-dollar house on the East Coast and not in Spokane, where he owns a co-op apartment.

Gone for the moment are the stiff lectures to high school students on the origins of representative government. For a man who clearly loves Congress, and who has spent a third of a century studying and reveling in its nuances, this may be the most painful month of a distinguished political life.

But it may also be the strong medicine he needed. After beginning the campaign passively against a political unknown and falling as much as 18 percentage points behind in the polls, Foley has scrambled back.

Friday both he and his Republican rival, George Nethercutt, 50, a Spokane lawyer, say their polls show the race to be a dead heat.

To get to this point, Foley has suffered indignities that were unheard of in his campaigns of yesteryear.

For one thing, there are fewer and fewer people around who know that he is the son of Ralph and Helen Foley _ the father a judge, the mother a community leader _ who were so revered that their names are chiseled into the biggest new building at Gonzaga University, near the statue of Bing Crosby, who was a student there.

Now talk radio hosts call Foley things that are unprintable.

Foley, in fact, seems perplexed at the degree of change he sees on the American political landscape. Talk radio is "abusive and slanderous," he said in an interview.

General press coverage, he said, "has become overwhelmingly negative."

In 15 previous campaigns as the Democratic representative from Washington's 5th Congressional District, Foley rarely broke a sweat. This year the speaker of the House, the official third in line for the presidency, is heavily perspiring.

He is trying, with a display of sudden urgency, to avoid having an awful historical footnote attached to his name _ as the first speaker since William Pennington of New Jersey in 1860 to be voted out of office.

But in trying to persuade the voters to choose him again, he faces this central conundrum: Defending Congress gets him nowhere at a time when, national surveys find, only one person in five has any faith in it to do the right thing, and yet he must defend the legislative system that has made him its leader, or at least explain how his speakership works to his constituents' benefit.

Interviews and other anecdotal evidence suggest that a fair number of voters in this district do not know that by voting out Foley they would give up the speakership, and with it the speaker's power to make sure that, for example, the farmers of the region continue to receive huge subsidies, or that the area continues to have the cheapest federal electric rates in the country.

So Foley's campaign is spending more than $1.5-million on a high-stakes civics lesson.

His television advertisements declare repeatedly that Nethercutt's first vote in Congress would be to move the speakership from Spokane to Marietta, Ga., the home of Rep. Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip.

In a campaign season when challengers have run on their lack of experience, Nethercutt's response illustrates that old principles of political logic do not necessarily apply this year.

The challenger is seeking votes by asking the beneficiaries of federal largesse to reject the congressman who got it for them, all in the name of sending a message of complaint about how Congress operates.

The roads that Foley has helped to restore, the air base he saved, the police officers he delivered to Spokane, all of these are pork, Nethercutt says. Mocking the speaker's power, Nethercutt carries around a pocket-sized pink pig _ "the best little friend" of Foley, as he calls the toy.

Analysts _ both locals and outsiders _ seem astonished that voters might be willing to give up the speaker's influence in order to send a message of contempt for Congress.

"What we've got are two parts ignorance, one part cynicism and one part novelty," said Robert Herold, a professor of government at Eastern Washington University.

Nethercutt's polls show that only about 20 percent of the people here think that the influence that comes with Foley's title is a significant enough reason to retain him.

"And without that, he's got nothing to fall back on," said Terry Holt, a spokesman for Nethercutt.

For most of the past decade, Foley has been able to come home to deferential treatment, cutting ribbons at projects that he sponsored, receiving standing ovations at Rotary lunches.

The establishment is still respectful. The Spokesman-Review, the leading newspaper here and long a center of Republican power, gave Foley a strong endorsement last Sunday, saying he was "the sort of man most Americans would love to have as their congressman, a prodigious intellect, a man of unusual integrity."

But now Foley runs into the occasional heckler at speeches and is vilified at all times of the day on the radio.

The actor Charlton Heston has come out against Foley in a television advertisement for the National Rifle Association. And Nethercutt, in a debate against Foley on Friday morning before 850 people at a Chamber of Commerce gathering, suggested that the incumbent did not understand the concerns of families.

Four times the challenger spoke the words "I'm a dad," leaving unsaid that Foley is not. The strategy, said Holt, Nethercutt's spokesman, is to show that "Tom Foley is not like the rest of us."

To counter the NRA's ads, Foley put on a plaid shirt the other day and went out to a firing range, where he shot a few rounds with an old buffalo rifle _ this by a candidate who is known for having once shown up at a summer rodeo in an English-tailored suit.

Foley may have been handed a gift when the NRA decided to attack his support of the assault-rifle ban included in the Clinton administration's recently enacted anti-crime legislation.

With polls showing people here favoring the ban by 2 to 1, Foley is running advertisements that remind voters of what happened in Spokane earlier this summer, when a man with an assault rifle killed four people and wounded more than 20.

In an interview, Foley spoke warmly of the institution others now revile. Congress _ to some the poster child of all that is wrong with government _ is "in improving health," he said.

"I'm very proud of this Congress," he said, adding that he was heartened by an uptick in some national polls that "show a rise in the interest for incumbents."

But he expresses such sentiments in private conversation, not in speeches. Speaking well of Congress on the stump could prove irreparably damaging this year.

Still, some experts say Foley should defy prevailing political wisdom. Making a case for respecting the top job in Congress and what it represents, these experts say, is Foley's best hope of holding on.

"I have to think that on Election Day, Foley will pull it out," said Herold, the Eastern Washington professor. "I think enough of those people who now have George Nethercutt signs on their lawns will walk into the polling booth and say: "What am I, crazy? Have I lost my marbles? Giving up the speaker of the House?' "