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Cash Greases the Wheels Of '90 Political Campaigns

Big war chest seen as gauge of a campaign's focus and effectiveness

AIR FORCE 2 glided gently onto the Cedar Rapids runway at 5:50 p.m. - just in time for Vice President Dan Quayle, looking sun-tanned and refreshed, to make a few remarks to waiting cameras for the local 6 o'clock news. The next day, Mr. Quayle's airport comments also made the front page in the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Des Moines Register. But for Iowa Republicans, the vice president's mission here was more than news-making. In a single evening, he raised $40,000 for the United States Senate campaign of Republican Tom Tauke.

Election '90 has shifted into high gear, and from now until Election Day it is campaign cash that will grease the wheels of the Republican and Democratic political machines. Big-name fund-raisers like Quayle and House Speaker Rep. Tom Foley (D) are invaluable allies for Republican and Democratic candidates. Best of all at raking in contributions, of course, is President Bush.

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As Democratic activist Mark Gearan puts it: ``The president's cachet is cash.''

Old-fashioned politicking, like door-to-door canvassing, still has a place in modern-day campaigns. But in the closing weeks of autumn, it is money that talks. It buys TV time - the only means available to sway thousands of voters on a single night.

This year, although not one vote has yet been counted in the nation's 35 Senate races, finance reports already tell us a lot about who is likely to win - and who will almost certainly lose.

Example: West Virginia. Democratic incumbent Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who could easily finance an entire campaign out of his own pocket, has saved up contributions of $1,649,941 for this fall, according to the most recent report of the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

In contrast, his Republican challenger, attorney John Yoder, has $107. It doesn't take a PhD in political science to see where that race is headed. Mr. Rockefeller is favored by 30 points.

Then there's New Mexico. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pete Dominici doesn't seem to have much to worry about either. He has $807,218 in his kitty. That should easily enough snuff out his Democratic foe, Tom Benavides, who has just $135 in reserve.

Contests that are financially lopsided can be found in all parts of the country, from Idaho to Louisiana, and from Virginia to New Jersey. Alex Gage, a Republican political analyst with Market Strategies Inc., in Southfield, Mich., says the flow of money serves as a valuable indicator.

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``Candidates who raise a lot of money signal that other aspects of the campaign are coming into focus,'' he says. ``It is also the initial barometer that people use to gauge the success of a campaign.''

Mr. Gage recently analyzed 24 Senate campaigns that took place during the 1980s in which incumbent senators lost their bids for reelection. Those races provide some valuable insights, he says.

It is well known that incumbent senators go into a campaign with large financial advantages. Their office staff, paid by taxpayer funds, works around the clock to improve the senator's image. They get free mailings from the United States Postal Service. They attract campaign funds from lobbyists who seek to expand their influence on Capitol Hill. Altogether, these advantages are worth at least $1 million a year, says longtime Republican political consultant John Deardourff.

To neutralize that money advantage, Mr. Gage calculates that a challenger must raise at least 85 percent as much in campaign contributions as the incumbent.

Here in Iowa, challenger Tauke has raised 90 percent as much as incumbent Democrat Tom Harkin. That is one reason experts say Tauke has a reasonable prospect of an upset.

The same holds true in Hawaii, where challenger Patricia Saiki, a Republican, has raised even more than incumbent Democrat Daniel Akaka - a factor that helps make Mrs. Saiki a slight favorite.

On the other hand, Republican challenger Lynn Martin in Illinois has been unable to match the huge war chest of incumbent Democrat Paul Simon. ``With the money, she could win,'' declares Doyce Boesch, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But to build that kind of bankroll, she would need to raise $30,000 daily from now to Election Day, Mr. Boesch observes.

Anita Dunn, an official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cautions that the money indicator is not an infallible predictor of congressional politics. Sometimes candidates who are heavily outspent win anyway. Other times, rich candidates waste their funds.

Ms. Dunn points to North Carolina, where incumbent Republican Jesse Helms has raised more than $6 million. His opponent, Democrat Harvey Gantt, has collected less than $1 million. But Dunn says a large part of Senator Helms's money has already been dissipated on fund-raising efforts, leaving just over $550,000 on hand for Helms's fall campaign, according to FEC reports.

Likewise, in Kentucky, incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell has three times the cash-on-hand of his Democratic opponent, Harvey Sloane. But Dunn says that should have very little impact on the outcome.

Currently, Democrats hold a 55-to-45 edge in the Senate. A number of analysts, such as Charles Cook Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report, expect the GOP to pick up one or two seats. It could even go as high as three. That would put Republicans in an ideal position to reclaim the Senate in 1992, when all the party's candidates should get a boost from the presidential campaign.

But other analysts, such as David Beiler writing in Campaigns & Elections magazine, predict a net change of zero in the Senate.

Democrats admit 1990 is a challenging year. ``We'd feel pretty good if we held our own,'' says Larry Harrington, political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In states like Illinois, Iowa, and Rhode Island, that may depend upon the generosity of contributors as much as on the voters.

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