• U.S.

Campaign Windup Fight to the Finish

7 minute read
Jacob V. Lamar Jr.

In South Dakota the race could be called the Jane Fonda election. When first- term Republican Senator James Abdnor found himself trailing telegenic Democrat Tom Daschle by nine points, he unleashed a barrage of TV spots charging that his rival had consorted at a congressional hearing with Fonda, conservative America’s most reviled radical. Fonda, Abdnor pointed out, had urged people not to eat red meat; beef and pork are among South Dakota’s biggest farm products. The upshot: Abdnor has now pulled slightly ahead.

In California, Democratic Senator Alan Cranston widened an early lead by depicting Republican Opponent Ed Zschau as flip-flapping on issues. Zschau struck back, using Cranston’s opposition to the death penalty to charge that the three-term Democrat is soft on terrorists and drug dealers. The latest polls show Zschau closing in on Cranston.

Florida’s Republican Senator Paula Hawkins accuses Democratic Rival Bob Graham of accepting support from the Young Communist League. In Wisconsin, Democratic Challenger Ed Garvey was accused of hiring a private eye to snoop into Republican Senator Robert Kasten’s affairs. Maryland Republican Linda Chavez, a mother of three, derides her opponent, Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, who has never married, as “antimale” and a “San Francisco-style” liberal.

A week before voters go to the polls to choose the makeup of the 100th Congress and determine the course of Ronald Reagan’s last two years in Washington, races around the country are particularly notable for two things: the absence of national themes and a conspicuous lack of good taste. Despite pressing local economic concerns in many states, the candidates are emphasizing character as the dominant issue and attacking each other’s reputation in brief TV spots. Yet this is no ordinary election year: the G.O.P. is clinging to a 53-to-47 Senate majority, and Democrats have a good chance to capture seats in at least nine races, regaining the Senate majority they lost in 1980. The stakes are not as high in the House, where incumbents usually win re-election; Democrats are expected to add about a dozen seats to their majority of 253-to-180 seats.

Like Abdnor, Republicans in the Senate’s Class of ’80 have been struggling in their re-election bouts. G.O.P. incumbents have been unable to establish solid leads in Washington, Idaho and North Dakota. Hawkins and Chavez trail in their races. In his campaign to replace the retiring Paul Laxalt, Nevada Republican Hopeful Jim Santini is locked in a dead heat with Democratic Congressman Harry Reid. Several contests in which Republican incumbents seemed secure — North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin — have narrowed in recent weeks, renewing hope for Democratic challengers. But some Democrats are also shaky: in addition to California, with Cranston’s problems, three states with retiring Democratic incumbents — Colorado, Louisiana and Missouri — have races that are too close to call.

As party strategists have watched the elections “close up,” they have started hedging their earlier confident predictions. Democratic Pollster Harrison Hickman warned against complacent optimism, harking back to 1982, when “Republican money pulled the rug of success from under us.” Said a G.O.P. honcho: “For us to hold on in the Senate, everything has to break perfectly in a lot of states.” He added soberly, “I’ve never seen a midterm election in which everything breaks perfectly.”

One break the Republicans desperately need is a high turnout of party loyalists, a tough accomplishment in a midterm race. Unlike in past elections, Republican voters in the Reagan era include large numbers of young people and previously independent conservatives — people who are not habitual voters. To get them to the polls, the G.O.P. has established telephone banks around the country that will call some 10 million likely Republican supporters before next Tuesday.

The party is also making heavy use of its biggest gun. President Reagan last week launched a final tour of crucial states, hoping some of his spectacular popularity will rub off on local candidates. In Missouri, where former Republican Governor Christopher (“Kit”) Bond is straining to stay ahead of Democratic Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods, Reagan told an enthusiastic audience, “This is my last campaign, and if you’d like to vote for me one more time, you can do it by voting for Kit Bond.” The Democrats have responded by trotting out such luminaries of their own as Ted Kennedy and 1988 Presidential Hopefuls Gary Hart, Joseph Biden and Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt to stump for their party’s candidates. National figures on both sides are trying to inject some issues into the campaign, stressing the struggle for the Senate and, since the Reykjavik summit, the President’s allegiance to the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Despite party leaders’ concern, political analysts have found that the American electorate has become anesthetized by ignorance and apathy. California Pollster Mervin Field estimates that less than 10% of the voting- age population are “attending”: following the campaigns, informing themselves about world affairs or caring about public issues in any active way. Field tells the story of a door-to-door campaign worker who persuaded the head of one California household to register to vote. “What are the choices?” the gentleman asked. Democrat, Republican or Independent, he was told. “Which is Reagan?” the man said. “That’s what I want to be.”

In the absence of voter interest, a disturbing number of candidates have resorted to vicious, often petty, character assaults to get the public’s attention. While such attacks are nothing new, this year’s campaigns are the dirtiest in recent memory. “The issue space in people’s heads is getting smaller,” says Field. “The negative ads are the ones that stick.” The forum for most of the mudslinging is television. In big statewide races, staging rallies and pressing the flesh in traditional “retail campaigns” are becoming dying arts; saturating the airwaves with pungent, simplistic 30-sec. “hit ads” is considered more efficient and effective.

Many close races may be decided by which candidates can cough up the cash for a heavy media assault in the last days of the campaign. Here the G.O.P. holds an astounding edge. Through Sept. 30, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed $6.7 million to its candidates, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could muster only $2.8 million in funds. The Senate campaign committees are each limited by law to spending roughly $12 million for all Senate races. The G.O.P. expects to “max out” its cash limits in every one of its tough races, while the financially strapped Democrats will not be able to come close. The Republicans are now topping those limits with an additional $6 million in supposedly direct contributions to candidates that were “bundled” together in a national fund-raising drive.

Many political observers still expect the Democrats to squeeze out a Senate majority. If the Democrats can hold on to the four closely contested seats that currently have Democratic Senators — California, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri — they need to win just four of the nine or so Republican seats that are considered vulnerable. Yet Republicans have become renowned for their abilities down the stretch. The G.O.P. may be shaky this year, admits White House Political Adviser Mitch Daniels. But, he adds, “we’ve got the money, and we’ve got the President.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com