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04/30/98- Updated 08:19 PM ET

Dems out-raise GOP in big House races

WASHINGTON - Democrats have amassed hefty campaign bank accounts in congressional districts where incumbents are not running, a situation that a Republican consultant says should worry the GOP.

In three districts held by retiring Republicans, Democrats without serious primary opposition already have raised more than $500,000 each, far more than any Republicans vying for the nomination to run in the general election.

This fund-raising prowess has given Democrats a boost as they try to capture the 11 seats they need to regain a House majority.

"It's a signal," Democratic political consultant Peter Fenn said. "It shows which candidates are out there working hardest and which candidates have their act together. It says these guys are out of the box, and they've got an operation, and they're doing what they should be doing."

Rep. John Linder of Georgia, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said he's not worried about Democrats raising more money than the GOP in some districts. "Some of the seats they're going to win," he said. "Some we're going to win."

In fact, Linder's campaign committee has raised far more money so far than its Democratic counterpart: $43 million between Jan. 1, 1997, and March 31 of this year, compared to $19 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Yet, Republican political consultant Craig Shirley argued that the Democratic fund-raising edge in some of those important "open seat" districts should catch the eye of GOP strategists.

"That's something to be concerned about," Shirley said. "The party and the candidates better get their act together quick. Money equals message. If you've got the money, you're able to get on the air now, hire staff and be able to use that money to raise additional money."

The Democratic fund-raising prowess comes at a time when the party's 1996 campaign finance practices are under scrutiny and its top draw, President Clinton, is under investigation.

Rep. Martin Frost, Texas Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party began recruiting candidates after the 1996 election and urged them to raise money early and often.

Indeed, the open-seat Democrat who has raised the most money has been doing it since January 1997, Frost said Thursday. University of Nevada Regent Shelley Berkley, running for the Las Vegas-based seat being vacated by Republican Rep. John Ensign, raised $590,327 between Jan. 1, 1997, and March 31, 1998. She is a strong favorite to capture the seat in November.

"We emphasized getting candidates in the races early," Frost said.

Other successful early fund raisers include state Sen. Mike Thompson, the Democratic nominee in Northern California's 1st District, running for the seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Frank Riggs; and psychology professor Brian Baird, who lost to Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., by fewer than 1,000 votes in 1996 and is trying again for the seat Smith is giving up to run for the Senate. Thompson raised $552,594 through March 31 and Baird $501,490.

Republicans aren't without their own fund-raising edges in open-seat districts.

In North Carolina's south-central 8th District, being vacated by Democrat Bill Hefner, the only Republican in the race, former gubernatorial nominee Robin Hayes, raised $484,951 and had $380,965 in the bank as of March 31.

By The Associated Press

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