The Hands Clutching At Clinton's Coattails

Chalk up yet another political tradition that has fallen by the wayside. Democratic congressional candidates used to spend the closing weeks of a Presidential campaign swimming as far as possible from the standard-bearer's sinking ship, lest they be dragged down in the undertow.

But on a recent visit to the Italian market in South Philadelphia, Bill Clinton found himself mobbed by Democratic hopefuls clutching at his coattails. The first to dash to Clinton's side was Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, who is seeking a Republican-held House seat on the ritzy Main Line. Close behind were Lynn Yeakel, who narrowly trails Republican Senator Arlen Specter, and Representative Peter P. Kostmayer, who is fighting to survive in a heavily Republican suburban district that nonetheless leans toward Clinton. "In the past, I wouldn't even go to a rally like that," Kostmayer admits. "But this year, it's different."

`ONE PARTY.' How much can Clinton help other Democrats if his big lead holds up? Separate estimates by pollsters Claibourne Darden and G. Terry Madonna found that Democrats down the ballot may pick up three to five percentage points. That could be a big help to beleaguered Democratic incumbents, many of whom are polling about 10 points below their 1990 victory margins.

Republican officeholders may be more likely to become the victims of the anti-incumbent fervor they helped to stir up. "The public," says San Francisco pollster Mervin Field, "has bought Bush's argument that divided government leads to gridlock. And they're saying: `Let's give one party a try.'"

Not surprisingly, the Republican candidates who cozied up to Bush four years ago are running away now. Three incumbent Republican Senators--Dan Coats of Indiana, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and Robert W. Kasten Jr. of Wisconsin--are airing tv spots critical of the "Washington Establishment"--including pictures of Budget Director Richard G. Darman and former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. In the most extreme case, Specter's ads note his areas of agreement with Clinton, while blasting Yeakel as too liberal. "These candidates can smell a loser a mile away," says Darden. "Very few people intentionally hook their wagon to a loser."

Barring a last-minute collapse of the Clinton juggernaut, gop strategists are resigned to a gain of only about 10 House seats, down from earlier estimates of 40. Clinton's pull appears to be strongest in such battleground states as California, Florida, Georgia, and Michigan, where redistricting held out the prospect of big Republican gains. In Senate races, Democrats hope that Clinton's strength will allow them to unseat incumbents in Oregon and Pennsylvania and snag open seats in California and Washington. And Clinton's coattails could save embattled Democrats John Glenn of Ohio and Terry Sanford of North Carolina. "We're expecting a close race," says Sanford aide Anna Driver. "It definitely could help."

The Republican discomfort is sweet revenge for Democratic strategists. In 1984, top Clinton adviser Paul E. Begala worked for unsuccessful Texas Senate candidate Lloyd Doggett, who would have nothing to do with nominee Walter Mondale. "We were running from the national ticket like a devil runs from holy water," he recalls. This year, Democrats are begging for Clinton to appear with them. Cackles Clinton senior strategist James Carville: "If it keeps going like this, we'll probably have Republicans running to join us on the stage." It might be a tad early for such cockiness. But after three straight Presidential catastrophes, Democrats can be forgiven for basking in the glow from the top of the ticket.

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