WASHINGTON -- In the race to succeed Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, Ohio's lieutenant governor, Mike DeWine, picked up a $10,000 check from the American Bankers Association -- mainly because of the man he's running against.

"He has a good record in Ohio, and bankers are supportive of him," said Edward L. Yingling, executive director of government relations for the ABA. "But there's a real concern that his opponent, Joel Hyatt, will be like Sen. Metzenbaum ."

Sen. Metzenbaum drove bankers crazy with amendments requiring new consumer services, and Mr. Hyatt -- the founder of a nationwide budget legal service that bears his name -- is his sonin-law.

Industry trade groups and major banks have been digging deep into their war chests this election season in hopes of gaining the favor of incumbents and challengers alike during the 104th Congress.

As it did in the last election cycle, the ABA weighed in at nearly $1.2 million in political action committee contributions for the current election season.

With more money to spend on elections than any other organization in the financial services industry, the big bank trade group was able to spread the wealth among many candidates.

"We have a different way of doing things, since we have such a large PAC," Mr. Yingling said. "We have the ability to be a major player and contribute the maximum in a number of races."

Among bank companies, NationsBank Corp. handed out the most, contributing nearly $522,000 to candidates through Sept. 30, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

J.P. Morgan & Co. and Barnett Banks Inc. of Florida followed, with total contributions of $434,000 and $378,000. respectively.

Although Barnett is supporting all five Senate Banking Committee inCumbents up for reelection, Marty Farmer, the bank's lobbyist, said that Barnett supports challengers in races involving senators who are not banking committee members.

"We're in a lot of challenger races, and there we're tending toward Republicans," Mr. Farmer said.

"Of course, when you find a good Democrat or two, you'll back them."

Barnett also doled out about $200,000 in contributions in its home state's races.

In a move that illustrated its commitment to the wishes of its constituent banks, NationsBank made sizable contributions to both candidates in the tight Virginia Senate race between Republican challenger Dliver North and incumbent Democrat Sen. Charles Robb.

"We try to avoid riding both horses in a race, but sometimes we do it," said Mark Leggen, the bank's lobbyist.

"Robb has been a strong supporter on banking issues, particularly interstate. But even though North's position is much less clear than Robb's, the president of our bank in Virginia is on his committee."

NationsBank's political action committee donated $3,000 to retired Marine Lt. Col. North's campaign, and "maxed out" with a $10,000 contribution to Sen. Robb.

"We're guided largely by local folks, and the relationships we have with them," Mr. Leggett added.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., both Senate Banking Committee incumbents, also garnered the maximum amount permitted from NationsBank's coffers.

"They have both been very strong supporters of banking issues, and you dance with the one who brung you," Mr. Leggett said.

Although the Independent Bankers Association of America is contributing to more challengers than it has in past years, the small bank group prefers to rely on the predictability of incumbents.

"Our PAC can't compare with some of the money-center banks or the ABA, so we try to get the most bang for our buck," said Ron Ence, director of legislative affairs at the IBAA.

He said his group tends to shy away from getting involved in challenges.

"We try to put our dollars where we think they'll do the most good -- most of the time that is with an incumbent."

Incumbents have been contacting Alex Maroulis-Cronmiller, director of the IBAA's political action committee, more than in prior years.

"We're at the 'freak-out' stage," Ms. Maroulis-Cronmiller said. "We're getting more calls than ever before from incumbents, and more are visiting our offices than ever before."

Sen. Sarbanes tops the IBAA contribution list at $7,000 as of the September filing with the Federal Election Commission. The Maryland Democrat, a candidate to fill Sen. Donald W. Riegle's seat as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is facing competition from former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock.

"Soft dollar" contributions play an important role in the elections as well. Designed to bolster partybuilding efforts at the state and local level, these donations are not constrained by contribution limits or restrictions on .who may contribute.

During the 18-month span ending June 30, 1994, commercial banks and thrifts spent nearly $500,000 in soft-dollar contributions.

Financial institutions were easily outspent by securities and investment firms, which donated over $2 million, and by the insurance industry, which spent over $1.6 million.

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