Hot Issues Not Clearly Defined in Upcoming Congressional Elections Republicans and Democrats Search for Topics Most Likely to Distinguish Parties, Gain Votes; but Analysts Say Concerns Change Every Week, and Will Not Jell until Much Later Series: Campaign '90. Part 26 of a Series

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FLAG burning. Higher taxes. Abortion. Federal deficits. Neil Bush and the S&L crisis. Which sizzling issue will shape the 1990 elections for Congress?

With 106 campaign days left, Republican analyst Bill McInturff says the strongest theme for his party could be illegal drugs and crime.

But Democratic analyst Dan Carol points to the savings and loan scandals - a topic he says "caught fire" after the president's son, Neil, became a key figure in the unfolding saga.

Republicans have lost their broadest national themes - "no new taxes" and anticommunism. President Bush softened his tax pledge, and the Soviet Union suddenly looks less menacing. Instead, candidates in both parties have pushed "hot button" items, like flag burning, which flare momentarily into public view, then flicker away.

"We've had so many one-week wonders, it's unbelievable," says Wendy DeMocker, an official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Ms. DeMocker says issues, like people, seem to follow the old Andy Warhol rule that in the future, every (issue) will be famous for 15 minutes.

"One year ago, it was the abortion ruling. We got questions on that for about two weeks," Ms. DeMocker says. "Then came the peace dividend. ... In the winter, it was the Moynihan (social security) plan, then the Rostenkowski (budget) plan, and then Earth Day, and then along came the flag. And then taxes. And then S&Ls," she says.

"Has any one of those issues stuck like glue? Not really," says DeMocker.

Yet some experienced campaigners see a pattern. Charles Cook Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report, says the overarching theme may be "anti-Washington." That includes a gamut of concerns: the S&Ls, the pay raise for Congress, ineffective government, and general frustration.

Analyst Alan Secrest of Cooper & Secrest Associates Inc. says he has detected, through thousands of interviews, increasing voter unrest. He says poll numbers are declining for incumbent members of Congress.

Mr. Secrest sees three factors at work: the S&Ls, the pay raise, and the national debt. He says that's why both parties are doing a "dance of death" over S&Ls: to blame each other.

If Secrest and Cook are correct, voter antipathy could affect many of this year's 35 races for the United States Senate and 435 contests for the House. The sour mood could also spill over into governorship races in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

Although analysts focus on national issues, they say each race will be fought out with local permutations. Abortion, for example, could be crucial in the US Senate race in Iowa, where the candidates take opposite views. …

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