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WASHINGTON TODAY: The Democrats’ Biggest, Best Target in Years

November 13, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democratic candidates visiting the Capitol recently got some advice from Texas Rep. Martin Frost: ``Your opponent’s middle name in the election is Gingrich.″

Democrats have waited a long time for a target as big and bold as the House speaker. They’re already making the most of the opportunity.

Newt Gingrich figures prominently in Oregon and California special-election races that preview the 1996 campaigns to come. The whole country is seeing ads that charge the speaker wants to eliminate Medicare; they were made by the Democratic National Committee.

Ronald Reagan, the last larger-than-life Republican on the national stage, had a polarizing agenda and an affable personality that shielded him from political attacks. Gingrich has the former but not the latter. Democrats could hardly ask for a better foil.

They have been heartened by public opinion polls. Last week a whopping 56 percent in a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll said they had an unfavorable impression of Gingrich, R-Ga., _ more than twice those who viewed him favorably. Furthermore, six in 10 said President Clinton should veto the Republican plan to balance the budget in seven years, cut taxes and cut the rate of spending on Medicare and Medicaid.

Gingrich was asked Sunday on NBC’s ``Meet the Press″ why 70 percent of all Americans in a new Times Mirror poll said they would never vote for him for president under any circumstances.

He referred to a Washington Post article reporting that ``the Democrats decided deliberately after the election last fall that they would beat on me, attack me, smear me, and do whatever they could _ that if they could isolate me, that that would then make me the excuse for trying to win in ’96.″

He added, ``The truth is, you know, you’ve had a year of my getting beaten up day after day, of people lying day after day, of smears day after day. I think that it’s pretty natural.″

He also said it was ``very, very unlikely″ he would run for president.

Rep. Ron Wyden, competing for the Democratic Senate nomination in Oregon, is hitting Gingrich policies and touting his own alternatives in two TV spots. One shows him and his kids watching a televised Gingrich talk about putting children in orphanages. ``Daddy, what’s an orphanage?″ asks Wyden’s daughter.

In San Jose, Calif., ads for Democratic House candidate Jerry Estruth attack ``Newt Gingrich’s cuts in Medicare for our seniors and education for our children.″ The candidate’s tagline: ``Jerry Estruth for Congress. Newt Gingrich hasn’t heard of him. But he will.″

Estruth is also tying his opponent _ former Rep. Tom Campbell _ to Gingrich policies. Campbell ``voted with Newt Gingrich 76 percent of the time″ in his last term, says one Estruth ad, using a technique highly recommended for next year’s challengers.

House Democrats are happily circulating a roster of Republican ``Gingrich defectors″ whose actions suggest Gingrich is a political liability. Campbell is first on the list: he did not ask Gingrich to campaign or meet with him when the speaker was in his district Oct. 20.

The list also includes Rep. Peter Torkildsen, R-Mass., who told the Boston Globe that ``a Massachusetts Republican and a Georgia Republican are very different people″; and freshman Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, who is showcasing examples of his independence in literature entitled ``Not a Newtoid.″

Republicans have tarred untold numbers of Democratic congressional candidates by linking them to Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis or, last year, to Bill Clinton. They tried to use former House Speaker Tip O’Neill as a symbol of liberal excess and irresponsibility. But O’Neill never had the negatives of Gingrich.

``There is general distrust of most political leaders right now. The intensity of the debate is just heightening that emotion,″ says Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who has polled for House and Senate leaders.

He said Gingrich remains the party’s most articulate spokesman: ``He can explain a vision for the future of America that is more compelling than anyone else.″

Democratic strategists, citing their own research, beg to differ.

``People think that he shoots from the hip. They think that he is arrogant. They think he is unconcerned, uninterested and uninvolved with the needs of real people ... and most importantly they think what he’s doing is wrong,″ said pollster Mark Mellman, an adviser to President Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders.

Gingrich is a safe target. But some analysts say he may not be as helpful to Democrats next year as he is right now, dominating center stage at the Republican congressional revolution.

James Campbell, a political scientist and author at Louisiana State University, says history indicates Gingrich will not be ``a major lightning rod″ once his party nominates a presidential candidate and the White House race revs up.

There is at least one sure-fire way for Gingrich to stay in the spotlight, and Democrats are trying their best to make sure it happens. The party chairman, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, the other day laughingly urged Gingrich to enter the presidential race. ``I think he’d be a fine candidate,″ said Dodd.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Jill Lawrence covers Congress for The Associated Press.