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Primaries Anyone?

SURPRISING as it may seem, 1994 is an election year. Typically, in off-year elections the party out of power gains seats - especially in the House. Republicans are tantalized by the notion of picking up as many as 25 House seats, cutting into the Democrats' 81-seat majority. That kind of gain may make legislative life a bit more difficult for the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet 1994 ends its second month with underlying trends that, if sustained, could dent those hopes.

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First, the economy. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that unemployment in February fell to 6.5 percent from 6.7 percent in January. Considering the battering that much of the nation has taken from winter weather - and that California's San Fernando Valley took from the earthquake - this was a better showing than many economists expected.

Moreover, the number of nonfarm jobs created in February slightly more than doubled the 100,000-job increase economists had anticipated. February marked the fifth consecutive month of job growth in manufacturing, according to Labor Secretary Robert Reich. This news came on the heels of revised figures earlier in the week showing that during the last three months of 1993 the economy grew at a 7.5 percent rate, after adjusting for inflation. November is eight months away, but most economists forecast steady, if more-moderate growth, for the rest of the year.

Second, some intriguing - if tentative - political indicators. According to recent New York Times/CBS News surveys, for the first time since 1976 the gap between those who identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans is widening - at the GOP's expense. Young people in particular are now more likely to identify themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans (although this 18-29 age group historically has been the least likely to vote). In January, a Times/CBS poll split evenly over which party was more likely to reduce crime. Despite uncertainties about President Clinton's health-care reform plan, Democrats held a commanding lead as the party more likely to improve the health-care system; and, stealing a march on the Republicans, Democrats are seen as the party more likely to reform the welfare system.

Meanwhile, respondents to the January survey listed crime/violence, health care, the economy, and unemployment as their top concerns; at the bottom were the federal deficit, welfare, and issues of war and peace.

It is unclear what impact the Perot supporters of 1992 - some 19 million of them - will have. Then again, some analysts also wonder how deeply committed the flock of Democratic ``newcomers'' are to the party and to what extent the national figures relate to the state and congressional-district level.

Primaries, anyone?

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