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Rust-Belt Republican Fights to Keep His Seat

To win again, Mr. English is showing his moderate side

IF you see Rep. Phil English cruising around his district in a white Cadillac, know this: It's got 200,000 miles on it, the left rear door is jammed, and it belongs to his chief of staff.

These are the caveats Mr. English offers as he rolls through this lunch-bucket town, past the cavernous and empty steel mills, the American Legion post, and streets with names like ''Malleable.''

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This is Western Pennsylvania: home to steelworkers, unions, dairy farmers, veterans, senior citizens, and very few Coupe DeVilles. It's hardly typical ground for a freshman Republican.

In order to win reelection here, English must distance himself from the immoderate reputation of his freshman class, and convince voters that most Republicans care about the elderly and the working poor even as they downsize programs meant to help them. If he pulls it off, English will offer the best evidence yet that Republicans can hold the blue-collar vote, and forge a lasting coalition.

''The Republican Party will be an enduring majority only if it can pitch its message to a lot of people who have not traditionally been comfortable with [us],'' English says. ''We cannot be the party of privilege,we cannot be the party of one class. We have to have a universal message that appeals to everyone in America, regardless of their circumstances.''

Democrats are convinced that the GOP will fail to do this, particularly here in the 21st District, which backed Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton in presidential bids. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has aired television spots here morphing a picture of English into House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Tricia Primrose, spokeswoman for the DCCC, says the race is ''certainly one of our top priorities,'' because English was ''swept in on a Republican wave'' even though ''his views are not that in step with the people in his district.''

Yet Democrats could be in for a tough fight. The last representative here was Republican Tom Ridge, who won the seat six times and was elected governor in 1994. Ross Perot also faired well here in 1992.

Indeed, English is different. He is possibly the only congressional Republican who supports raising the minimum wage. He sponsored legislation to extend the duration of unemployment benefits, and to repeal automatic congressional cost-of-living pay raises, and voted with Democrats on some environmental measures.

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On Medicare, the issue English frets over most, he has won plaudits for instituting a commission in his district dedicated to ''saving Medicare.'' To date, he has hosted 23 meetings with seniors groups where he stresses the program's solvency crisis, his support for curbing waste and fraud, and the customized benefits the GOP plan would allow.

English rails at Democratic ''scare tactics'' and takes credit for installing a ''lockbox'' provision that would prevent Medicare savings from going to other uses, like a ''tax cut for the rich.''

Nevertheless, English is already drawing fire from constituents who perceive GOP policies as falling too hard on the poor and elderly. English concedes that his opponents will find several bumper-sticker lines in his voting record: like his wrenching decision to support a Labor, Health, and Human Services bill that contained several riders opposed by labor unions.

Yet English says despite his differences, he is ''not prepared to walk away from the things [Republicans] have tried to do,'' like working toward a balanced budget and downsizing government. ''I'm going to run on that,'' he notes.

By all accounts, English's tenure in Congress has been productive. He has introduced more bills, 20, than any other freshman, and was one of three granted seats on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Democrats on Ways and Means praise his willingness to work with them on job-training issues, and his skills honed in the Pennsylvania Legislature and as city controller in Erie, Pa. Republicans, too, gush about his legislative zeal. During his only vacation this year, one aide says, he brought along a book on the flat tax.

Among constituents, English is roundly hailed as ''a nice guy.'' Few describe him as a Gingrich clone. But the most common reaction here is Chuck Bentley's. A former steelworker who now works at the American Legion here, Mr. Bentley says neither party seems to care about working people. ''How do they know what it's like for us?'' he asks. ''Nobody is cutting their pay.''

English's likely opponent, Ron DiNicola, a lawyer from Erie, is likely to echo Democratic attempts to label English as a fat-cat Republican. Last year, Democrats posted an effigy of English on an Erie parking meter wearing a mink coat and smoking a cigar.

''What surprises me is how some people in Washington, across party lines, really don't have a good sense of the discontents of people in a district like mine,'' English says. ''House Republicans need to start talking more to pocketbooks, to people of all economic backgrounds.''

English, by the way, drives a Pontiac.

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