National Republicans claim Democrats have perfected the political art of gerrymandering - or manipulating political boundaries to benefit themselves.

One sign: 381 of the 435 U.S. House seats did not change parties since the last redrawing of boundaries after the 1980 Census for the 1982 elections.While many causes could exist for that, Republican National Committee chief counsel Ben Ginsberg says a main one is that Democrats controlled most state legislatures, therefore managed most redistricting and used it well to protect seats held by their party.

"And they did a real good job. I have to hand it to them," Ginsberg said, noting Democrats managed to even pick up 25 extra House seats in the past nine years even though Republicans were managing to win two presidential elections.

"Even in states where we control the legislatures - like many out West - we ended up not doing as good of a job of redistricting as the Democrats," Ginsberg said.

A case in point, of course, is Utah.

Even though Republicans controlled the Legislature and reapportionment 10 years ago, Democratic Reps. Wayne Owens and Bill Orton managed to win two of the state's three congressional seats away from Republicans using those boundaries.

In other words, while only 12 percent of the House seats nationally changed parties in the past 10 years, 67 percent of Utah's did. And if another 6,539 people in the 1st District had voted for Democrat Kenley Brunsdale in his race last year against Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, 100 percent of Utah's districts would have changed parties.

Republicans, not surprisingly, are laying groundwork nationally to ensure that Democrats don't do such a good job this year with redistricting - but part of their strategy might cause problems for some rumored party plans in Utah aimed at ousting Owens and Orton.

That comes because the Bush administration, its Justice Department and national Republican leaders generally are vowing to strictly enforce new amendments to the Voting Rights Act to ensure "minority districts" are created whenever possible to help ensure more minorities are elected.

"As a practical matter, the first thing officials have to do is draw minority districts," said John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

That could mean, for example, if a third of a state, a county or school district is Hispanic or Indian or black, Dunne says a third of the House, County Commission or School Board seat boundaries should be drawn if at all possible to form "minority districts" to help ensure a third of the elected officials are Hispanic or Indian or black. That may include ending at-large elections with no district boundaries.

Of course, "minority districts" might also have the effect of concentrating Democratic votes within some districts, which may make other districts more competitive for Republicans. In fact, Jeffrey M. Wice, counsel to the Democratic State Legislative Leaders Association, said, "Republicans support the notion of creating more minority districts only when it serves their partisan interest."

But part of such national Republican strategy could hurt them in Utah because Dunne said one thing he will guard against in enforcing the new amendments is improper "fragmenting," or splitting compact communities to dilute their voting power.

But some Republicans, such as Hansen, have talked openly about splitting Salt Lake County three ways - with a bit of it going into each of the state's three congressional districts.

Such a plan would almost surely split some communities, possibly diluting their influence in Congress by maybe having a majority of each district living outside the county.

It would make re-election more difficult for Owens - whose district is now entirely within Salt Lake County - by possibly giving him a mostly rural district where his pro-wilderness stands are unpopular. But Republican stands against fragmentation applying to minority districts might make that difficult to justify.

But such potential problems in little Utah likely won't stop Republicans from national plans seeking to overcome all the advances Democrats made 10 years ago. No matter how it works, as Ginsberg said, "We'll likely be better off than we are now."