BUTLER, Pa. (AP) _ In a rallying cry echoing across the nation, Democratic congressional candidate Ron DiNicola is quick to remind supporters that freshman Republican Rep. Phil English signed House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ``Contract With America.''

``Our congressman signed a contract with Newt Gingrich,'' the normally soft-spoken DiNicola forcefully told a restless crowd of labor leaders. ``You don't have to be a lawyer to figure out that when you sign a contract with somebody ... that person owns you, and you're not independent.''

With Gingrich's popularity rating low, Democrats are seizing on the speaker and his conservative agenda as they target Republican freshmen and try to regain control of the House after two years in GOP hands.

English, like many other Republicans, is just as fast to distance himself from Gingrich. ``I'm an independent,'' he said recently at a pancake breakfast in Sandy Lake. ``I've had a pretty moderate voting record.''

The attacks have put English on the defensive, and have him disavowing GOP positions at times.

One of his campaign flyers mentions his party only once _ in the context of differing with the GOP leadership's opposition to an increase in the minimum wage. His television commercials tout: ``Independent Voice. Pennsylvania Values.''

In 1994, English defeated his Democratic opponent by fewer than 5,000 votes. The AFL-CIO estimates that at least that many union members voted Republican, making labor a decisive force in this largely industrial, Erie-based district in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Courting that vote, DiNicola has blasted English for supporting a $270 billion curb in projected Medicare spending and a budget-balancing blueprint that targeted $10 billion in savings from the student loan program.

DiNicola's assertions are similar to those made by Steve Owens, the Democrat challenging freshman Republican J.D. Hayworth in Arizona. And by Connie McBurney, facing GOP freshman Greg Ganske in Iowa. And by Tom Allen, seeking to deny Maine Rep. Jim Longley a second term. The list goes on.

The AFL-CIO has added fuel to many of the attacks, independently running television and radio ads highlighting GOP votes on Medicare, education, pensions and other labor issues. All told, the AFL-CIO says it will spend $35 million on the campaign; Republicans estimate that labor and other groups have spent some $450,000 in English's district alone.

Business groups also have entered the fray with plans to spend about $1 million every 10 days to counter organized labor's efforts.

Democrats need a net gain of 18 seats to win back the House, and more than half of the 73 GOP freshmen are being targeted. Forty-seven of them won with 55 percent or less of the votes cast in 1994. Thirty-five are in districts President Clinton carried two years earlier.

In April 1995, just as House Republicans completed votes on their ``Contract With America'' legislative platform, Democrats began running a TV ad linking the stances of English and Gingrich.

Other GOP targets soon emerged.

Elizabeth Welner, managing editor of the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter, said Democrats need to nationalize the House races ``to achieve the kind of Republican wave Republicans saw in 1994,'' when they united behind Gingrich and his agenda.

She said Republican incumbents improve their chances by directing attention to local issues because voters then will tend to support a familiar face rather than tow the party line.

Along California's coast, Reps. Andrea Seastrand and Frank Riggs are under fire for GOP policies that Democrats say hurt the environment. In Maine, Longley's opponent has a television spot that mentions Republican efforts to cut funds for home heating assistance.

In English's district, where half of the families make $25,845 or less, labor issues prevail. While Democrats have tapped into voters' concerns about sending kids to college and paying for health care after retirement, English has stressed his support for increasing the minimum wage.

Nevertheless, English said the labor ads have him worried.

``If people see a false picture painted repeatedly and it isn't checked as aggressively as it has to be, the message will sometimes stick,'' he said.

English has pressed for debates in an attempt to set the agenda rather than let it be dictated by labor and Democratic strategists in Washington.

In television ads and on the stump, English also has sought to emphasize local issues by stressing his constituency work and portraying DiNicola as a carpetbagger whose primary law practice is in California.

DiNicola acknowledged his main obstacle is English's 3-1 fund-raising lead. To help overcome that, DiNicola recently held events with White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and Hillary Rodham Clinton and had one scheduled today with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.