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Election '81: it was the man, not the issues

A surprising quiet has settled over the Democrats on the economy. At the same time, prime opposition to Reagan economic plans has started to come from moderate Republicans - who want a more gradual policy.

The Democrats are shying away from taking the offensive on the economy out of necessity and strategy.

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Democratic economists and leaders say that ''a window of sunshine'' may part the economic clouds in the second half of next year, as the 1982 election approaches.

And this week's elections suggest the best way to compete against the Republicans is to stick to election fundamentals - selling the character and competence of the candidate, with less stress on party and without attacking the popular President.

''We've been warned not to bank on perceived Republican failure on the economy for '82,'' says Robert Neuman, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

''Democrats can't count on the economy,'' agrees Ted Van Dyke, director of the Center for Democratic Policy. ''There's a growing consensus that the business cycle may temporarily give the Republicans a reprieve, as inflation, interest rates, and unemployment improve when the economy comes out of recession next summer.''

The economy and President Reagan played little part in the hotly contested Virginia governor's race, observes Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who aided the winning Charles Robb campaign.

Looking for lessons for '82, Mr. Hart told the Monitor: ''Character - that's really what it came down to. Ronald Reagan really did not affect the election very much. We measured his impact from July until the end. As hard as (Republican candidate) Marshall Coleman pushed Reagan, there was a reverse benefit for the Democrats. Blacks turned out in record numbers as they realized they had a stake in the election.

''It was fundamentals. Coleman ran on everything else and Robb ran on his own hook. Coleman just came up short as a candidate. Ronald Reagan is a popular individual. But it was a race for governor, and Reagan was not part of the equation.''

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Republican Party leaders, for their own reasons, also sought to blame the basic quality of candidates for their limited success this week, and not ''macro'' national influences like the President's popularity or his economic program.

Theories of a conservative tide, a growing Republican majority, or that the 1982 outcomes will hinge on the President's economic success all took something of a beating this week.

The Democrats' distancing themselves from the economy extends to their current strategy on the Hill, as President Reagan struggles to retune his economic program with the economy moving into recession, beset by high interest rates and deficits.

''We're sitting out the hand,'' says Rep. Donald Pease (D) of Ohio of his Democratic colleagues' posture on the House Ways and Means Committee, which usually originates tax legislation.

''We might as well let the President propose a new program in the Senate, where he has the majority,'' Mr. Pease says. House Democrats reason that they do not have a working majority in the lower chamber anyway, as three defeats by the Republican-Southern conservative Democratic forces have proved.

''I don't think a bill will pass the Senate,'' Pease says. ''If (Budget Director) David A. Stockman wins the White House debate and sends up a tax increase package to the Senate, I don't think you can get 53 Republican senators to agree on it.

''Or the administration will likely propose something, the Senate will take minimal action, and send it to the House where it wouldn't emerge. I think the (moderate Republican) Gypsy Moths, not to mention the (conservative Democrat) Boll Weevils, will defect.

''In political terms, Reagan might be able to sell the line a $70 billion deficit isn't so bad after all.''

Pease, other Democrats, and many Republicans think the President and his party may be able to ride out the big deficit issue next year, if other economic signals look positive.

''None of us like a big deficit,'' said Republican National Committee chairman Richard Richards. ''But the typical citizen is going to care more about interest rates and inflation rates.''

''The success or failure of Reaganomics is not going to have a tidal wave effect on next year's elections,'' says Mr. Van Dyke of the Center for Democratic Policy, the party's new Washington think tank.

''The President's opposition now is from his own party's moderates and pragmatists,'' he said. ''It's a policy opposition, not a political opposition. They want him to be content with the budget cuts, go for tax increases, and slow down defense spending. I can't believe Reagan won't listen to them. He's too good a politician to ignore them.''

With a tempered economic policy, the economy will be less of a factor next year, Van Dyke suggests. The potential for a conservative tide that appeared to loom last November has dissipated. ''Last fall, there was a rejection of Carter and Democratic ineffectiveness. We are back to a voter search for a congressman or governor who is competent,'' says Van Dyke of the shape of elections to come.

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