Originally created 07/05/96

Candidates use partyleaders against opponents



In 1994, President Clinton was a favorite campaign topic - for Republicans.

This election, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., will be the bogeyman that Democrats hope to use to turn voters away from Republican candidates.

Despite "problems" with the public perception of their agenda, Republicans will run as a team, from Bob Dole on down, and not shy away from the lightning rod Mr. Gingrich, candidates and officials say.

And even with Mr. Clinton holding a double-digit lead over Mr. Dole, some Democrats, such as David Bell of Augusta and South Carolina Senate candidate Elliott Close, will not be running arm-in-arm with the president, even when he visits Georgia next month for the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. The Georgia Democratic Party says that if Mr. Clinton is sounding conservative themes, he is merely catching up to what they have already been stumping on for years.

In the end, elections could be decided on whose stigma - Mr. Gingrich's or Mr. Clinton's - hurts his party the most.

"Each side has its own symbol," said Dr. Earle Black, a political expert at Rice University. "It's much more even than it was in '94."

In that election, challenger Charlie Norwood pulled off an overwhelming victory over Don Johnson by pinning the incumbent to votes he had made supporting Mr. Clinton, especially the 1993 tax increase.

Mr. Bell does not plan to fall into the same trap.

"I'm going to Washington to be an independent voice and that doesn't just apply to congressional politics but presidential politics as well," Mr. Bell said.

His strongest criticism aims at Dr. Norwood for his blind allegiance to the Republican Party and Mr. Gingrich.

"I think Charlie Norwood is wrong to go to Washington and vote 98 percent of the time with the Republicans," he said.

But to Dr. Norwood, who hopes to have Mr. Gingrich in town for an appearance this month, that record and his work with Mr. Gingrich are things to brag about.

"He's given me the things to vote for that the people of the 10th District asked me to vote for," Dr. Norwood said.

If 1994 was a referendum on Mr. Clinton, then 1996 could be a referendum on the Contract With America, a choice that Clinton-Gore spokesman Joe Lockhart would like to see.

"I think the extreme policies of the Dole-Gingrich '95 Congress brought the Democratic Party together and we've been together ever since," he said.

In fact, Republicans bear some responsibility for Mr. Clinton's political rebirth, said Rusty Paul, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party.

"The irony of the Republican Congress is it's made Bill Clinton appear more moderate," Mr. Paul said.

Dr. Norwood, however, is counting on the presidential election working in his favor again.

"Part of it will be Dole helping me and Clinton helping me," he said. He plans to make the case that only with a Republican president like Mr. Dole can he and the Republican Congress fulfill the Contract With America.

If there is a confluence of messages in Georgia, it is because Mr. Clinton is coming around to good ideas Georgians have already put forth, such as the HOPE scholarship program, said Georgia Democratic Executive Director Steve Anthony.

"I don't think he was a help in '94," Mr. Anthony said. "He can be a help now, or maybe we help him."

But then Southern Democrats have always run away from the national party's more liberal nominee, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

In South Carolina, Mr. Close's campaign signs don't even identify him as a Democrat. And he certainly is not going to run as a Clinton companion, a corner that Republican incumbent Sen. Strom Thurmond has already tried to paint Mr. Close into.

"They will try to say that Close is a Clinton liberal, hand-picked or whatever," Mr. Close said. "That's the furthest thing from the truth."

He walks a fine line between disagreeing with Mr. Clinton on issues such as gays in the military and health care and wanting to support the president for his economic success.

"I'm not sure he's gotten credit for some of the things that have happened under his watch, whether or not you think he had anything to do with them or not, that's debatable but ... there's some things he's handled well and there's some things he's handled poorly."

Mr. Close's attitude is understandable for many Democrats, who see the high poll numbers but also the danger Mr. Clinton faces from ongoing scandals such as Whitewater, Dr. Black said.

"I expect a lot of 'em are somewhat nervous," Dr. Black said. "They're not sure what they've bought into."

The race in the 10th District between Mr. Bell running as an independent and Mr. Norwood stumping to fulfill the Contract With America could serve as a microcosm of races across the South.

"It's going to be the clearest election you've ever seen in two opposites," Dr. Norwood said.

On that, everyone can agree. Even Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Clinton.