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Republicans, Democrats both see gains on horizon

The game of Washington politics could be called "Assertion." To claim the political tide is with you can help win close votes in congress and raise money for party coffers. Such is the sweet magnetism of momentum.

At the moment, the Republicans are making their best case for President Reagan's tax package, arguing that his popularity and the appeal of his program are swelling GOP ranks among voters nationwide.

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For the Democrats, after last November's debacle and this spring's budget defeats in the House, the politician's requisite air of self-confidence is harder to come by. But Democratic leaders are still muscling their way toward a showdown with the President on the tax bill, with bidding and compromises to win swing votes. By the rule of assertion, a win for the Democrats on the tax bill in the closing days of July would gravely damage the Republicans' claims to Washington supremacy.

Failing that, the Democrats argue that current Republican gains in voter allegiance may soon be followed by a counter surge in Democratic strength, and a renewed interest in the political process in general.

Who will win next year's mid-term congressional elections?

The Republicans will pick up two dozen seats, says Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Richard Richards, putting the Republican Party close to the 27 seats they need to wrest control of the House.

The Democrats "expect a net gain of a bakers dozen" -- more if the economy is in rough shape -- says Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt.

As is always the case with the game of assertion, the accurate tallying of the score will come in November 1982.

The trend lines in voter identification have been favoring the Republicans -- though in terms of how much, surveys differ widely.

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Polls taken in June for the RNC show the Republicans seven points behind the Democrats, compared with a 16-point GOP lag a year ago. The Republican survey, taken by Market Opinion Research of Detroit, gives the Democrats 34 percent, Republicans 27 percent, and independents 39 percent.

A Gallup poll, however, has the GOP and Democrats 14 points apart, with Democrats at 43 percent, Republicans 29 percent, and independents 28 percent. Another independent organization, the Roper Organization, also finds the Democrats slipping -- from 48 percent to 43 percent this past year, with the Republicans rising from 23 percent to 25 percent. "We show the same direction, less Democratic and more Republican -- the gap narrowing from 25 to 18 -- but not a radical shift," says Burns Roper.

Historically viewed, the Republicans' 27 percent share in US voter party identification puts the GOP exactly back where it was in October 1952. The Republican high point, according to University of Michigan surveys continued by Market Opinion Research, was 29 percent in the last four years of the Eisenhower administration, in the 1950s. The GOP low point was 18 percent in December 1974 , as Watergate sapped both parties' strengths. The Republicans, then, now are in the upper range of their rather consistent 30-year band of voter strength.

The Democrats, at 34 percent in June 1981, are three points below their previous low of 37 percent in October 1954, when the Truman era ended with Ike's domestic conquest. But they had been as low as 38 percent in October 1974, and 39 percent in October 1978. The Democratic high was 51 percent in the fall of 1964, as President Johnson won his first term outright and launched his Great Society legislation, which many observers see the past election as attempting to correct.

What is most unique in the Republican survey numbers is that independents now rule the roost.

In the fall of 1964, independent voters for the first time began to outnumber Republicans. By 1966, it was Democrats 45 percent, independents 28 percent, and Republicans 25 percent. In June 1980, independents tied Democrats at 39 percent , in the U of M/Market Opinion Research series. Now the independents, still at 39 percent, lead the Democrats by 5 points, the Republicans by 12.

How the independents split in an actual election, of course, will determine the outcome in 1982.

Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, a member of Patrick Caddell's Cambridge Survey Research firm, states that "Democrats are taking a beating now. The tug on the American people's [party] ties had been loosening. Possibly you may have some new party importance through the rest of Reagan's term -- for both parties."

"There is really very little conversion going on," Mr. Maslin says. "Very few voters with past Demo cratic ties are swinging over to the Republicans."

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