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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Her Best Defense: Bring Out The Vote

By Karen Tumulty

TIME magazine

(TIME, October 5) -- It is understandable if you have never heard of David Wu or Molly Bordonaro: neither have half the voters in Oregon's First Congressional District, and both are on the ballot. But while people in western Portland and its environs seem profoundly uninterested in who will represent them come January, the decision is getting plenty of attention in Washington. For the district, home to roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, is the sort of place that will determine the makeup of the next Congress, and probably with it Bill Clinton's future.

The latest and biggest in a parade of big names to campaign in Oregon's First District: Hillary Clinton, whose tribulations have helped make her the hottest ticket on this season's fund-raising circuit. More than 200 Oregonians paid $250 each to Wu's underfinanced campaign to hear the First Lady declare over lunch, "We need to change the Congress!" The biggest favor Clinton did for Wu was to remind Democrats there is an election coming up and offer them a rationale for voting in a year when turnout promises to set a record low. Even in Oregon, where mail-in balloting makes voting convenient, two-thirds of those registered sat out the May primary. "This is the least interested electorate in my 20 years of polling," says independent pollster Tim Hibbitts. The numbers show, moreover, that the people most inclined to vote are disproportionately Republican. Recent polls give Democrat Wu a 6-point lead overall, but among those likely to vote, the G.O.P.'s Bordonaro has a 5-point edge. Nationally, in a TIME/CNN poll last week, registered voters favored Democratic congressional candidates 48% to 41%. But the results were dramatically different among likely voters: G.O.P. candidates held a 49%-to-45% advantage.

Those are the sorts of numbers that explain why the President's approval ratings are of little comfort to Democrats. For now, at least, only the most desperate Republican candidates seem inclined to try to turn the election into a referendum on the President's behavior. But Democrats sense that the sex scandal is contributing to a general alienation that will keep voters--particularly their voters--away from the polls. This concern is underscored by the fact that Democratic fund raising is not meeting expectations while G.O.P. coffers are bulging to the point where the party is able to give even its long-shot candidates the maximum amount allowed by law. Its election committee has decided to subsidize a dozen races in which G.O.P. candidates were considered lost causes just a month ago.

Enter Hillary. In the days after her husband's confession of an "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the First Lady resisted--wisely, it now appears--the pleas of her husband's allies and advisers for her to bestow her forgiveness ostentatiously in a nationally televised interview. Instead she is making the case for her husband's survival in private. Two weeks ago, she served coffee and danish and reassurance to about two dozen adoring women lawmakers at the White House. She also lobbied Capitol Hill by phone to shore up Democratic support for the President, helping quiet the grousing of at least one of his more outspoken critics, Virginia Congressman James Moran. There is talk that she may even address the House Democratic Caucus.

But where Clinton's influence may count most is outside Washington, where she is the party's most popular draw, particularly among the faithful. Having already made almost 50 campaign appearances this year, the First Lady stepped up her schedule last week to hit five states in three days. In New York City for Senate nominee Charles Schumer on Wednesday, she told 250 thousand-dollar donors that Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato is "a Jesse Helms clone" who has voted "to keep women down and back." In San Francisco, organizers who had expected 400 people at her $250-a-head appearance for Senator Barbara Boxer on Friday night had to make room for 1,150.

Perversely enough, her appearances are most needed in the precincts where Democratic candidates have become leery of appearing with her husband. Wu, for instance, insists he was misquoted in a New York Times story that suggested he would prefer Clinton stay away. But asked whether that means he would like to see the President make a stop in Portland, the lawyer replied, "Didn't say that either." Oregon's Democratic Governor, John Kitzhaber, has put it more bluntly, saying he would decline any offers by the White House to send Clinton into the state. "The issue would just be the President's behavior, not the campaign," Kitzhaber said. "I'm not interested in that."

Even without the scandal's static, voters might have more trouble than usual drawing distinctions between the two parties. Democrats have consciously fielded a more conservative team of candidates, and Republicans are downplaying the social issues that have cost them votes in the suburban districts, where the most important battles are being fought. In Oregon, Wu and Bordonaro, neither of whom has ever held office, are jostling each other for the middle. Bordonaro, 30, having run in the 1996 G.O.P. primary as a Newt Gingrich acolyte, now soft-pedals her personal antiabortion stand and her opposition to gun control. Wu, 43, who immigrated from Taiwan when he was seven, has styled himself in Clinton's New Democrat mold, stressing fiscal discipline. Both candidates say education is their top priority.

Ideas may matter, but in this disaffected political moonscape, organization matters more. Democratic strategists are quietly urging candidates to move their money out of advertising and into get-out-the-vote efforts. That may mean winning voters one at a time. On Friday in Portland, retiree Judy Carlson Kelley ignored admonishments from the First Lady's staff and asked her to sign a copy of her book. Thrilled when she did, Kelley asked, What can we do for you in return? Hillary nodded at Wu and said, "Get this man elected."

--With reporting by Cathy Booth/Portland, David S. Jackson/San Francisco and Melissa August/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 5, 1998

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