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Candidates This Fall Must Be Squeaky Clean

Election expert predicts up to 125 new faces. INTERVIEW

DID you ever dream of running for Congress? Of passing laws for the nation? Of getting Washington under control? Well, 1992 could be the best time to do it.

"There will never be a better year to run," says Charles Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report. He predicts that because of public anger with Congress, as many as 125 new faces may be in the House of Representatives after the November elections.

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Mr. Cook, one of the leading authorities on federal elections, has a word of caution, however, for any would-be congressmen: "They had better be very clean."

The long knives will be out in the 1992 campaign, and any hint of scandal could quickly wipe out a challenger. As Cook explains, if you run, you should never have done anything that "a completely amoral, unscrupulous person couldn't make to appear to be wrong."

The redistricting of Congress, required every 10 years, has shifted the boundaries of hundreds of members, and made them less secure. However, the House banking scandal, in which hundreds of congressmen bounced checks, has made virtually every member of the House feel at risk.

The public mood is one of such anger that it could sweep even previously-secure members from their seats.

In an interview, Cook analyzed the coming campaign. Here are excerpts:

Do you expect this election to be historic?

Yes. People should not look at the check-bouncing scandal in isolation. We're talking about something that started with the 50-percent pay raise attempt, then it went to [the resignation of House Speaker] Jim Wright, ... then the Keating Five, ...

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I think you are going to see a lot of House members lose reelection who never bounced a single check.

The thing is, check-bouncing ... fits into a pattern of behavior that people have come to expect out of Congress.

How many members could either lose or retire this year?

It was already going to be a high turnover year ... before the House bank ever became an issue. [Now] I'm coming up with between 115 and 125. ...

How does that compare with past elections since World War II?

The highest, I think, was 118, in 1948. When this happens, there is usually a big swing to either the Republicans or the Democrats. Will that happen this time?

That's because it's always been: 'Throw one side's bums out!' This one is going to be different.... Remember, 1990 was the first year that the reelection rate dropped for both parties in the House. The [mood of the public] was, 'Throw 'em all out,' rather than just throw the Democrats or the Republicans out. This year will continue that.

But the Democrats were in charge of the House. Why won't they be punished more severely? Or is there a way Democrats can spread the blame?

I think the Democrats owe [Defense Secretary] Dick Cheney big, big time. [Mr. Cheney, a Republican, admitted he bounced checks while he was a congressman.] That firmly established in people's minds that Republicans did it, too.

So that will cut damage to the Democrats?

A difference of about 15 or 20 seats.... It prevents a disaster [for Democrats].

Even so, there will probably be a shift toward the GOP. What would that do to the ideology of the House?

Well, 26 seats gets the Republicans up to 192, which would make it 243 Democrats, 192 Republicans. That's what it was after the 1968 election, after the 1972 election, and after the 1980 election. That gives you a conservative majority in the House, though not a Republican majority.

I'm not sure that 192 number is cast in stone though, ... so [to get a true conservative majority,] you might actually need 196 or 198 Republicans, ...

What would all these new faces mean for legislation?

The first thing they're going to do is campaign for finance reform, then probably some lobby reform. They will want to make an impact immediately, to show that they are going to be different. It will really change this place a great deal.

Going back to that question about running for Congress, what other advice would you have?

You need seed money - $50,000, $75,000, $100,000 - some personal money to get the campaign jump-started, and to reach some threshold of credibility. But here's where I get into my press-bashing thing.

The news media has a lot of blame to take.

A lot of people don't want to run because they don't want their privacy invaded.... Most Americans believe that politicians these days are not up to the standards of past years. I don't think that is true....

But I would say, if you're clean, there's no better year, but only if you are clean - obviously, clearly, and patently clean.

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