BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
As this 1st Congressional District race between Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls and incumbent Republican Steve Chabot unfolds, here's how you can tell if the Democratic challenger is running her own campaign or is having her strings pulled by the Democratic political machine in Washington:
Count how many times you hear the words ''kitchen table'' come out of her mouth.
Not dining room table. Not big comfy couch. Not antique credenza or even yard goose.
No, kitchen table is the key.
If she says the secret words once per speech, it won't make the duck come down and Groucho won't give her $50.
But it may mean that at least part of the campaign rhetoric Ms. Qualls plans to use in her campaign to unseat Mr. Chabot might have been scripted somewhere other than Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and everybody from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt on down spent months trying to talk Ms. Qualls into the race, figuring the three-term mayor was by far the strongest candidate they could field in a congressional district they lost in the Republican landslide four years ago.
By mid-February she had committed to the race; and three weeks later, no less a Democratic personage than Bill Clinton was in town providing her with photo op after photo op, hoping some of that 70 percent approval rating magic would rub off.
So far, Ms. Qualls has barely had to open her mouth in this campaign. When she has, the magic phrase kitchen table has always popped out. As in this snippet from her Feb. 17 campaign kick-off speech: ''This campaign is about who will address the everyday, kitchen table concerns of the working people of Cincinnati.''
The same line showed up in a March 2 fund-raising letter.
In your house, everyday kitchen table concerns might mean trying to figure out why Dad keeps putting the top back on the ketchup bottle when everybody else still wants to use it. But we think Ms. Qualls is talking about something else. Something serious.
But lest you think this kitchen table business is something unique to Cincinnati, that we have an extraordinary number of citizens agonizing over the household furniture, consider this quote from one Tom Wynne, a prosecuting attorney in Arkansas who is taking on Republican Congressman Jay Dickey down in Mr. Clinton's home state.
In last week's issue of The Hill, a Capitol Hill political journal, Mr. Wynne is quoted as to why he has decided to run for Congress:
''We need a representative who will fight for the everyday, kitchen table concerns of the hard-working people of South Arkansas.''
There's that kitchen table again.
the only difference we can find in these quotes from Democratic candidates hundreds of miles apart is that, in South Arkansas, people are ''hard-working,'' while in Cincinnati, they are simply ''working.''
Is there some kind of psychic bond between these two Democrats that make them utter the same phrases almost simultaneously when separated by half the country? Or are we wrong; is there more than Pop Tarts and Beanie Wienies being served up each day at the kitchen tables of America?
We think not. We think - and we would be willing to bet the ranch on it - some wonk in a cubicle at the DCCC came up with this evocative phrase. And we think that the brainiacs down at the DCCC took this phrase and tested it and re-tested it in front of countless focus groups of average citizens, all of whom agreed that, yes, we all have kitchen tables.
And, further, we think that there are untold dozens of Democratic congressional candidates around the country who, for weeks now, have been peppering their public discourse with references to that particular piece of furniture. And they will do so until voters tell them to stop.
Howard Wilkinson's politics column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org