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Key States To Watch For Election Strategy in '96

IN Virginia, G. Gordon Liddy's daughter is battling for a seat in the state legislature - a victory that could help put Republicans in the majority.

In Kentucky, a Republican could take over the governorship and the state Senate could go Republican, a turn that would signal deepening woes for Democrats in the South.

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In Louisiana, Democrats are expected to keep control of the state legislature, but only because their majority is enormous.

Forget about Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. In a handful of states, it really is campaign season, and the focus is on November 1995, not '96. Five states will elect both houses of their legislatures; two more will elect only their state senates. Three states will elect governors.

"These elections are concentrated in the South, so they will tell us if the Republican wave of '94 continues - is it gaining momentum, or losing steam," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We'll also get to see where Perot voters are going, a tip-off for '96."

Since 1992, when Mr. Perot burst onto the political stage, his followers have voted Republican by at least a 2-to-1 margin, Professor Sabato notes.

Political activists nationwide are watching the state races closely, not only to see who wins, but also which campaign messages resonate, how well are Christian right candidates doing, and how organized are their opponents?

The 1995 experiment

"Nineteen-ninety-five is a laboratory" for 1996, says Jack Young, general counsel for the Virginia Democratic Party. He is trying to get the Democratic Party back into the business of "retail politics," the grass-roots, door-to-door campaign work the Democrats used to excel at, and which the Christian right has skillfully adopted.

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Although many state-legislature races are obscure even in their own states and districts, the outcome holds increasing significance. The mood in the federal Congress toward delegating responsibility to the states heightens the importance of state legislators. Politicians at the state level are enacting legislation on health care, welfare, abortion, and crime, while in Washington they've stalled.

State legislatures also serve as farm teams for the US Congress; more Republican officials at the state level mean more who are qualified to run for federal office.

The shift toward Republicanism at the state level has been striking: Before last November's elections, 24 states had Democratic majorities in both houses of their legislatures versus eight states with both Republican majorities. Now, 18 states are Democratic in both and 19 are Republican. Republicans now also control far more governorships (30) than do Democrats.

In the three governor's races - Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana - Kentucky is the "crown jewel," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. Mississippi's state house is expected to stay Republican and Louisiana's is expected to stay Democratic, but in Kentucky, the race between Republican Larry Forgy and Democratic Lt. Gov. Paul Patton is close, with Mr. Patton ahead by a few points.

If the live-wire Mr. Forgy wins - handing the Kentucky statehouse to a Republican for the first time since the 1970s - he could have coattails, Sabato says. And that could pull the state Senate, currently 21 Democrats to 17 Republicans, across to a Republican majority. The state's lower house, at 64 Democrats vs. 36 Republicans, would be a bigger stretch.

Louisiana has been interesting for its political advertising, Mr. Rothenberg says. Louisiana candidates have hired some of the nation's top media firms - some involved in the presidential campaigns - and they have begun to trot out television ads that could give a glimpse into 1996.

"If Louisiana is any indication of national trends, consultants believe that it's still advantageous for candidates to stress their nonpolitical background and to address issues like crime and values," Rothenberg wrote recently. "That suggests that many of the popular themes of '94 haven't lost their appeal."

Virginia elections

The most interesting state legislative election is in Virginia, where Democrats hold razor-thin majorities in both houses. If both houses go Republican, it would be the first time in history since Reconstruction. As an off-year election - without any federal races or even a governor's race to pull in voters - turnout may be low, a situation that favors activist voters.

Enter the Christian Coalition, which is based in Virginia Beach, and its brethren in the Christian right, such as Concerned Women for America and the Family Foundation. Liberal candidates in Virginia say it's too soon to say yet how hard the right will fight them, but they are bracing themselves.

"I'm about to go into a bunker and get ready for the hand grenades," says Linda "Toddy" Puller, the incumbent Democratic state representative from a suburban Washington district and widow of famed Vietnam vet Lewis Puller. Mrs. Puller faces Sandy Liddy Bourne, daughter of ultraconservative Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy.

Puller says "there's not been much action in my race, period," but adds demurely that supporters of failed 1994 Senate candidate Oliver North "are supporting my opponent."

The Christian right has much to prove in Virginia, where it has had mixed success. Mr. North lost, as did another Christian conservative, Mike Farris, who lost his race in 1993 for lieutenant governor. But Gov. George Allen, who enjoyed the strong support of the Christian right but was not viewed as its "creation," won in his 1993 election.

"The Christian right is getting more and more involved," says Georgetown University professor Clyde Wilcox, a specialist on religious conservatives, speaking of southern states holding elections this fall. "They're targeting more races, building more coalitions. That in and of itself is a trend."

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