Yes, Monicagate Will Matter At The Polls

A few weeks back, Democrats had visions of a bloodbath on Nov. 3: Vengeful voters would punish the party's congressional candidates for Bill Clinton's sins. But if the Dems seem a little less despondent now, it's because they're betting that they can minimize their losses by turning all that voter anger back against the Republican impeachment gang.

Why the mood swing? Democrats have seized on polls that show the public strongly rejects the way GOP Hill leaders and Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr have handled Monicagate. A Sept. 22 survey by nonpartisan Zogby International found that 65% were displeased with the GOP response to the scandal. And according to a new CNN/Time poll, independents believe by a 2-to-1 margin that the GOP has been too partisan.

That may not translate into a broad anti-Republican backlash. But in some races, the GOP has reason to worry. The Democrats' best chance may be in New York, where Representative Charles E. Schumer is trying to unseat Republican Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato. New York has always been a liberal bastion, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is a political pariah to most Empire State voters.

SORE SPOT. D'Amato is particularly vulnerable to charges of GOP overkill: After he launched caustic attacks on the Clintons while chairing Whitewater hearings in 1995-96, his approval rating plummeted. Despite an assiduous campaign to woo home-state voters, D'Amato is still looking shaky, and having Hillary Rodham Clinton lambaste him as a "Jesse Helms clone" isn't helping. A Sept. 16-22 Quinnipiac College poll showed Schumer's narrow lead growing among likely voters.

Even in less friendly territory for Clinton, a GOP attempt to make the scandal an issue may be backfiring. In an Alabama House race, Republican challenger Gil Aust blitzed the airwaves with commercials calling for Clinton's resignation. But Aust still trails incumbent Democrat Bud Cramer by more than 3 to 1. According to a Sept. 17-18 Southern Opinion Research poll, only 13% of voters say the ads made them more likely to support Aust, while 30% said they were less likely to back the Republican. In South Carolina, Republican Governor David Beasley has been on the defensive ever since he aired TV ads morphing his opponent, Jim Hodges, into Clinton. At issue: Beasley's own truthfulness and personal morals.

Republicans say the Democrats are dreaming if they think a few isolated instances point to a Democratic bounce-back in November. Despite the efforts of unions, liberal groups, and minority activists, the Clinton scandal could still make many party stalwarts no-shows on Election Day. What's more, Republicans have a commanding fund-raising advantage for an 11th-hour media barrage. And with the economy still growing, 1998 is shaping up as a strong year for incumbents from both parties. "Add to that the current `unpleasantness,' and you have a daunting task" for Democrats, concedes one Administration official.

Gleeful Republicans couldn't agree more. Their core conservative voters are livid over the President's behavior, and that will motivate them to show up at the polls. The Sept. 23-24 CNN/Time poll found that registered voters preferred Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans 47% to 38%. But among likely voters, the GOP held a 49% to 45% edge.

With barely a month to go, one White House tack is to portray Hill Republicans as a lynch mob led by a rope-toting Gingrich. If it succeeds, the Dems could turn a possible electoral disaster into something a bit less painful--a more traditional midterm drubbing for the party in power.

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