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How close Republicans are to losing control of the House is signaled by the plight of Rep. James T. Walsh, who hardly broke a sweat in winning his first four terms to Congress. Now he is running for his life against an unknown in the safely Republican 25th Congressional District in New York.

As part of its nationwide $35 million campaign to return Congress to Democratic control, the AFL-CIO has spent all year seeking to convince Walsh's longtime constituents that this soft-spoken moderate is the incarnation of Newt Gingrich. "I think they have sown seeds of doubt about Jim," a close Walsh adviser told me. Indeed, this week, Walsh's own polls showed that, while still ahead, he had slipped below 50 percent -- an ominous portent for an incumbent.

If this Republican seat is lost, it will probably mean a Democratic 105th Congress. Win or lose, organized labor has demonstrated its lethal ability to transform an opponent's political character. "The national unions have descended on this district to make the Republicans play defense, back on their heels," Walsh told somewhat befuddled students at Auburn High School. Totally absent from the campaign is any mention of the Republican revolution.

Jim Walsh, 49, never dreamed he would be in such trouble. He served 11 years as a Syracuse city councilor, and his father, William (a former mayor), preceded him in Congress. The name Walsh has been on ballots in these parts continuously since 1959.

Hardly a right-wing fire-eater, Walsh was a Peace Corps volunteer and later a social worker before entering politics. He has always ranked well with the AFL-CIO, his rating as high as 75 percent in 1992. He often broke party ranks to help President Clinton on his early stimulus package, family leave and the minimum wage.

Walsh would have been lost in the crowd in the heady early days of the 104th Congress had it not been for his role as chairman of the House subcommittee on District of Columbia appropriations. The smallish, bespectacled upstate New Yorker gained national notoriety when he read the riot act to Mayor Marion Barry and forced a control board to oversee the nation's capital.

Walsh contends his laying off the payroll of 6,000 D.C. employees, union members all, is why labor targeted him. But his opponent, 43-year-old Marty Mack, argues that Walsh looked soft. Indeed, against female opponents offering only token opposition in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 30,000, his last two winning margins were 56 percent and 58 percent.

What's more, labor fell in love with Mack, an attractive and eloquent young lawyer. The two-term mayor of Cortland, he was unknown in Syracuse and could hardly have touched Walsh with the usual underfunded Democratic campaigns waged in the 25th District.

But, thanks to labor, Mack is anything but underfunded. Add labor's advertisements to his own, and his television spending nears $1 million, exceeding Walsh's.

The AFL-CIO shows no mercy and little concern for accuracy. It misrepresents Walsh as slashing Medicare and student loans and this week even shows him favoring seizure of a family's funds to cover Medicare costs. All of this is lifted, in highly inaccurate form, from the 1995 omnibus spending bill, voted for by Walsh and vetoed by Clinton. "They're not telling the truth, folks," Walsh pleaded with residents of Schwartz Towers Senior Center in Auburn.

House Speaker Gingrich was here early this year for a fund-raiser, but now, it is hands off Gingrich. "He's very unpopular here," Walsh told me.

In contrast, Mack reads straight from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee script. He deviates occasionally from President Clinton but never from House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt -- opposing the welfare reform bill and the North American Free Trade Agreement. No wonder Gephardt came here to help Mack, a man who could make him speaker.

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