- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

House Republicans appear to be gaining a slight edge over the Democrats in this year's congressional election races, according to several analysts.

Republicans are inching up in the generic polls. Democrats have had trouble with candidate recruitment in some key districts, and the number of seats the Democrats need to retake the House has grown slightly, making their task a little harder.

Earlier this year the Democrats needed to pick up five seats to control the House, and their political prospects of doing so were running slightly better than even.

Now "the odds don't look quite as good" for the Democrats, says veteran elections analyst Charlie Cook. "Indeed, at this juncture, Republicans seem to have a very slight advantage."

Mr. Cook's analysis of all 435 House races in the National Journal "suggests that the outcome in November will probably range between a Republican gain of three seats to a Democratic gain of five, one seat short of a majority."

Democratic Party consultant Mark Gersh also sounds pessimistic about the Democrats' chances this fall. "Unless there is a pickup, I believe, of two or more seats in California, then Republicans will probably hold on to the House," Mr. Gersh said this week.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also is expressing more confidence than ever that the GOP's House prospects are looking better.

"We've got a 6-point lead midway in the third quarter, but we have to hold it," Mr. Davis said in an interview. "We've still got a long way to go."

Congressional elections analyst Michael Barone also thinks that trends are moving in the GOP's direction.

"Republicans show more strength in these 'generic ballot' polls than at any time since the 1995-96 budget showdown; if that continues, and if the generic numbers continue to underpredict Republican performance, Republicans stand to gain seats this cycle," he writes in this week's issue of U.S. News and World Report.

Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who closely tracks House races, sees "a small, lower-single-digit gain for the Democrats in the 2 to 5 range," but not enough to take control.

Several things have occurred over the past three months that have made the Democrats' chances of reclaiming the House more difficult.

First, conservative Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia announced in January that he was leaving the Democrats to become an independent and would join the Republican caucus. That meant that the five seats Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt needed to win to become the next speaker had risen to six.

Second, Virginia Rep. Owen B. Pickett, a veteran conservative Democrat, decided to retire, turning a safe Democratic seat into a likely Republican pickup.

Then some of the Democrats' best hopes of knocking off Republican candidates fell apart in January.

In Louisiana, Democratic lawyer Marjorie McKeithen abandoned a rematch against Rep. Richard H. Baker, a freshman Republican, who defeated her in 1998 by a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent. And in Florida, the Democrats' best hope for the 12th District seat of retiring three-term Republican Rep. Charles T. Canady dropped out.

Another factor working against the Democrats' drive to take over the House is that there are relatively few open seats at stake and even fewer incumbents whose seats are endangered.

At the same time, the polls have been improving for the Republicans, though most polls still show both parties locked in one of the closest congressional battles in memory.

The bipartisan Battleground Poll released last week showed the Republicans moving to within 1 point of beating the Democrats in the generic ballot test.

An internal Republican poll presented at a closed-door meeting of lawmakers two weeks ago showed that public support for Republican House members was climbing.

The Fabrizio and McLaughlin poll conducted late last month showed that 44 percent of voters were more likely to vote Republican and 27 percent were less likely. "That was up from our poll in January when 'more likely' was only in the high 30s," said a House GOP official.

A recent CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll showed Republicans leading the Democrats in the generic vote by 48 percent to 43 percent.

Democrats concede that Republicans have had several breaks in the last three months but say they remain ahead in other polls and are on target to take the House back in November.

"Republicans had a good month at the beginning of this year, but it was a very minor uptick," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Mr. Davis has been consciously playing down the GOP's improved polls among his colleagues, telling Republicans that they had better run scared because the Democrats were mounting a highly focused, well-financed campaign to oust them from power.

"They are measuring the drapes to your office," he tells colleagues.

Republican officials have long maintained that a strong showing by George W. Bush over Al Gore in the presidential elections will have a positive impact on their congressional races.

But Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who chairs the Republican Conference, threw cold water on that forecast recently, citing an internal party poll that he says shows Mr. Bush does not help the GOP's House candidates that much.

"We can't rely on the presidential nominee. There's no coattails at this time," Mr. Watts told House Republicans at a recent strategy meeting that was leaked to the Capitol Hill weekly newspaper, Roll Call.

House Republican officials privately expressed anger over Mr. Watts' remarks, and Mr. Davis said he continued to believe that "the presidential race is going to have a significant impact on the congressional races. When Bush's numbers are up, our numbers are up."

"Bush may very well have coattails, but we're telling our members 'don't count on it; run your own races'," Mr. Davis said.

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