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Fri, Sept. 20

Republicans shift attention to local issues

Republicans believe two powerful, protective bulwarks ­ incumbency and gerrymandering ­ will help them withstand Democratic attempts to win control of Congress in November.

No matter what all those widely reported generic polls say now about Democrats being ahead of the Republicans, no one named Generic will be on the ballot this year. It will be a real person with a real name ­ in most cases, an incumbent member of Congress. And every poll says voters like the people who represent them ­ a lot.

"Voters do not go to the polls on election day and vote for an R or a D," said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). "They are voting for an actual person with whom they have a relationship. And on the question, 'Do you approve of your member of the House?' 60 percent answer yes."

Some erosion has occurred in the number of people who feel this way, though a strong majority still says they support their own representative.

The other political barrier protecting Republicans may be more powerful, because they built it with state-of-the-art technology to keep members of Congress in office. These are the district boundary lines that change every 10 years to make sure the party in power stays in power.

Both parties take full advantage of congressional redistricting when the time for reapportionment (to ad-just to population changes) comes around each decade. Only this time, the Republicans who controlled more state legislatures in 2000 got to redraw more district lines, picking up new seats and making sure they had even more GOP voters in their constituencies than ever before.

How strong are these lines? Here's what a veteran Democratic election consultant who specializes in House races told me this past week:

"The level of congressional redistricting that took place in 2000 was so technologically advanced that it can pretty much withstand the strongest challenges. That's why it's become much harder to beat incumbents who are using other technical advances in mailings and voter targeting."

But if these are the Republicans' front lines of defense, the Democrats are going to have to breach still others if they are going to cut deeply into the GOP's House and Senate majorities in the fall.

One of the GOP's latest strategic shifts is to play to local issues ­ from sales taxes to overcrowded suburbs ­ in an effort to blunt the Democrats hopes of nationalizing the election.

I discussed this lucrative political opening for the GOP in a recent column, but for the first time recently, top Republican campaign officials said it was now a major strategy they were planning to exploit in races across the country.

"We're content to have Democrats talk about the national atmosphere. We're focused on local issues," Ed Patru told me.

And it's not just in the House campaigns where this shift is apparent. They're pursuing this strategy in the GOP's Senate races, too.

"Winning on the local issues is going to be the key to Republican success in November," said Brian Nick, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The word has gone out, he added, to play to local concerns every chance you get.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the NRSC chairman, "is definitely stressing to the candidates to run on local issues," Nick said.

The GOP's switch to local concerns has been building slowly for months, as poll after poll showed increasing voter dissatisfaction of the Bush administration and the Republican-run Congress.

But this is the first time that national party officials have begun to talk openly about changing the focus of their campaign debate away from the national issues, which Democrats say favor them, to local issues that often draw more voter interest than do national issues.

This doesn't mean that GOP candidates can ignore national issues such as Iraq, terrorism and the lobbying scandal in Washington. But the word has clearly gone out to change the debate.

Says GOP consultant Scott Reed: "When the national climate stinks, you have no choice but to go local."

Republican campaign officials are loath to blame their predicament on Bush alone, but many believe his unpopularity is their biggest albatross. "It would be very helpful if Bush's numbers could go above 40," said one national party official.

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