- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2000

Republicans are awfully cocky about winning the election this November. They should remember the last time they were this sanguine. Newt Gingrich was actually leading them into a disaster that cost the White House and almost blew the House of Representatives majority.

Party and George W. Bush campaign officials scoff at the political science that predicts good times mean success for incumbent parties and point to their lead in the polls. This is what the Jimmy Carter campaign said to us right up until Ronald Reagan's landslide victory. It is possible to dismiss the pure economic models, for they have been flat wrong on occasion. But using polls of consumer confidence in the perceived future economy has always predicted the presidential election correctly, as Michael P. Miemira proves in the current "Public Perspective" magazine. Always. Consumer confidence is red hot, predicting Gore to get 66 percent of the vote the highest ever, leaving a great margin for error for the Democrats.

It is not any better for Congress. Sure, 98 percent of House incumbents are always re-elected. But House Republicans have a greater number of races in which no incumbent is running and these will be very threatened by the same prosperity affect as the presidential race. But it is the Senate that should really concern the GOP. While their majority is high by past standards, it is hard to remember a year when so many incumbents were in trouble unless it was 1986, the last time the Republicans lost eight net seats, and an equally large Senate majority.

Four incumbents are in obvious trouble Michigan's Spence Abraham, Missouri's John Ashcroft, Minnesota's Rod Grams and Delaware's William Roth. Connie Mack's Florida seat will be tough to retain. There will be razor thin-races in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. That is nine states at risk and only two promising although very close offsets with George Allen in Virginia and John Ensign in Nevada. The only reason the GOP's precarious position has not received more attention is the hollow euphoria over the Bush polls. If he falters or Mr. Gore figures out how to campaign, this could well be a landslide year for the Democrats.

Take Sen. John Ashcroft, Missouri Republican. The former auditor, attorney general, governor and one-term senator should be a shoo-in. Sure his opponent Mel Carnahan is a popular governor but Mr. Ashcroft just does not seem any longer to know what to say. The other vulnerable Republicans seem the same. The exception proves the rule. Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, will have a close race because he has a tough state; but he is leading because he has something worthwhile to say.

Without real issues, the Ashcroft race has gotten nasty and close. A July KOMU-TV poll showed Mr. Ashcroft with 47 percent and Mr. Carnahan with 46 percent, dead even. Mr. Carnahan just aired his first ads, scaring senior citizens about Medicare and Social Security. Mr. Ashcroft responded with an ad attacking Mr. Carnahan for attacking him, attacking the group that said Mr. Ashcroft was bad on seniors issues and their mailing house too, if one can believe that and defending himself. Unlike Mr. Santorum, he did not stick to issues and take them to his opponent but looked trivial, mean and defensive.

Beginning in October 1999, "an Ashcraft ally" got "angry" at some comments "attributed" to Mr. Carnahan and retaliated by sending a news photo of him in a blackface minstrel show to the media. A week later, a former Veterans of Foreign Wars commander and Republican legislator claimed Mr. Carnahan had misrepresented himself when he claimed to be a Korean War veteran. Mr. Carnahan then released Mr. Ashcroft's draft deferments, questioning their appropriateness. Jim Jordan, a paid Democratic operative, claimed Mr. Ashcroft's respected mail fund-raiser, Bruce W. Eberle, made his money "preying on the most vulnerable Americans." Mr. Ashcroft's manager, David Ayres, panicked and immediately fired Mr. Eberle without a shred of proof. Two weeks of tit-for-tat set the tone for an issueless campaign that edifies no one, certainly not a nice guy like Mr. Ashcroft.

The Bush presidential campaign is better. It is leading with a bold issue, reform of Social Security, and it has an interesting set of ideas on choice in education and faith-based welfare. The real test is going to be over Social Security. Texas Gov. George W. Bush can ask his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, why he lost his first bid for the Florida governorship. In that race, the opponent's campaign began poison phone calls to the elderly, saying Jeb Bush was going to ruin Social Security. If George W. does not thoroughly prepare the elderly beforehand, the same will happen to him. It is not foreordained that the Republicans will lose. Even good political science models cannot measure the sick-of-Bill-Clinton fatigue that weighs down Mr. Gore. But the Republicans will lose if they do not intelligently confront the issues and run scared until Nov. 8.



Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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