With control of the House of Representatives looming as the chief uncertainty in national politics as the campaign nears its end, both parties are focusing on two key groups of races that will determine whether Democrats regain the majority: Nearly 40 freshmen Republicans spread across the nation whose second-term bids remain shaky and roughly 20 Democratic-held seats in the South that could change hands.
In each category, perhaps a dozen seats already may be on the verge of a partisan switch, according to polls and the comments of political insiders. That prospect suggests that -- with a late surge by one party or the other -- the odds may be equally good that Republicans increase their current 235-197 majority (with one independent and two vacancies) as that Democrats regain control.
The outcome of House elections appears likely to tip working control of Washington for the next two years, with the growing consensus on Capitol Hill and in much of the political community that President Clinton will win re- election and that Republicans will retain their Senate majority. Among the most vulnerable GOP first-termers, whom Democrats claim have trailed in recent Democratic-financed polls, are the following: Reps. Jim Bunn of Oregon, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Dick Chrysler of Michigan, Frank Cremeans of Ohio, John Ensign of Nevada, Michael Flanagan of Illinois, Dan Frisa of New York, David Funderburk and Fred Heineman of North Carolina, James Longley of Maine, Mark Neumann of Wisconsin and Randy Tate of Washington. Other Republican-held seats in the most serious jeopardy are those of Reps. Bill Baker and Robert Dornan of California, Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts, and Martin Hoke of Ohio -- who appears to be the GOP's most endangered non-freshman -- and retiring Reps. Steve Gunderson and Toby Roth of Wisconsin, Jim Lightfoot of Iowa, Jan Meyers of Kansas, and Dick Zimmer of New Jersey, plus Greg Laughlin of Texas, who lost renomination.
About two dozen freshmen fall into the next tier of vulnerable Republicans, who are believed to hold narrow poll leads. They include five from Washington state, three from Ohio and two from Georgia. First-term Republicans who have become more secure after having earlier been among the top Democratic targets include Rep. Jon Christensen of Nebraska, plus Reps. Phil English and Jon Fox of Pennsylvania.
Among the most vulnerable Democratic seats, a majority are in the South. The incumbents include Reps. Sanford Bishop and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia -- both of whom are contending with major redistricting changes -- Mike Ward of Kentucky, and Ken Bentsen and Martin Frost of Texas, both of whom face the uncertainty of a December runoff because of that state's redistricting.
Southern open seats that are in the most serious jeopardy for Democrats are those held by retiring Reps. Bill Brewster of Oklahoma; Glen Browder of Alabama; John Bryant, Jim Chapman and Pete Geren of Texas; Cleo Fields of Louisiana; Sam Gibbons of Florida; Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas; Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi; L.F. Payne of Virginia and Charlie Rose of North Carolina.
Other Democrats facing a struggle to win re-election are Reps. George Brown and Vic Fazio of California, Elizabeth Furse of Oregon, Maurice Hinchey of New York, Bill Orton of Utah and Harold Volkmer of Missouri. Democrats also are worried about retaining the seats of retiring Reps. Anthony Beilenson of California, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Andrew Jacobs of Indiana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.