Can `A Different Kind Of Democrat' Retake The House?

Shelley Berkley has the kind of business-friendly resume that should make the local chamber of commerce ecstatic. The Las Vegas congressional candidate is a former chair of the Nevada Hotel & Motel Assn., general counsel to a local utility, and former deputy director of the Nevada Commerce Dept. She's also a Democrat. And she laughs at Republican attempts to paint her as a liberal: "That's a label that will be tough to stick on me."

With Democrats dreaming of recapturing the House this fall, Berkley is part of a crop of candidates out to moderate the party's reputation in the House as a bunch of left-wingers. This crew includes economic moderates, social conservatives, and unabashed business backers. "We're trying to recruit candidates who fit the districts," says Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

BIBLE TALK. That's pretty basic politics. Yet in the past, the Democrats leaned heavily on trial lawyers, friends of labor, and other liberal activists for their pool of House candidates. No more. Under Frost's four-year rule as chief recruiter, the party's Class of '96 turned out to be the most pro-business in memory. Frost hopes a comparable group of candidates will help Democrats capture the 12 seats needed to toss Newt Gingrich out of the Speaker's chair (table). While experts say a takeover in '98 remains a long shot, the new breed of recruit boosts the party's chances in key battlegrounds. "It takes a different kind of Democrat to even have a chance of winning" in some of the conservative districts targeted, says Joe Turnham, an Alabama social conservative who's trying to unseat Republican freshman Bob Riley.

Turnham, the state Democratic Party chairman, is just such a candidate. He helps run his family business--selling seating for auditoriums, churches, and grandstands. A staunch backer of civil rights and public schools, he's also in sync on social issues with Christian conservatives. "A lot of Democrats feel uncomfortable debating moral topics in the Christian community," he says. "I'll debate my opponent on the issues or do Bible sword drills."

In Pennsylvania, antiabortion candidate Patrick Casey, son of ex-Governor Robert P. Casey, gives the Democrats a good shot at winning a district long held by the GOP. Similarly, a pro-life, pro-gun gospel singer, Dave Phelps, is the best bet for holding a marginal Democratic seat in Illinois being vacated by the party's nominee for governor. These candidates have another advantage: money. In races with no incumbent, the 14 candidates with the biggest war chests are all Democrats.

Republicans aren't quaking at the sight of a few formidable foes. GOP strategists note that many of the strongest potential candidates have turned Frost down, and some conservatives may get knocked off in primaries by traditional liberals. Even if the newcomers win, the GOP won't go easy on them in the fall. "They've had people for 20 years who have claimed to be conservative while at the Rotary Club and then voted liberal in Washington," jabs National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.).

The GOP also points out that a similar recruitment gambit by Senate Dems failed in '96. All eight centrist business executives tapped to retake the Senate lost their races.

The difference this time: Unlike those Senate "businesscrats," who were neophyte candidates, Frost's friends all have at least some political experience. Besides, Frost has little choice but to seek out the center. If the Democrats are to have any hope of retaking the House, they have to go where the swing voters are.