WASHINGTON — THIS is a humbling year. A mere midterm election with no great questions of war or burdens of hard recession sobering the scene. Yet it has become a grinding test for pillars in the Democratic pantheon, scions of Democratic dynasties, names that have carried big hopes and big ambitions.
There is a rumbling of earth beneath Democratic feet. Oddsmakers, reading the Richter scale race by race, now speculate that a Republican Senate is as likely as not, and a GOP House, for the first time since 1954, is more than possible.
The rumbling is the sound of voters restless over their politics, their government, but something more than that as well. Americans are uncomfortable about the social order. The leading issues this year are crime and welfare - indicators of danger and irresponsibility. The talk is all tough. Health care, astonishingly, barely registers.
In their concern, Americans are turning to the right. In the lineup of morality versus license, crime versus coddling, and welfare versus work, government stands in the minds of many voters on the wrong side. Like city streets, government is seen as out of control, beyond the grasp even of politicians themselves. Voters seem to be asking government to do little beyond locking up criminals and getting its own affairs in order.
The numbers so far indicate a Republican year on a scale not seen for nearly two generations, despite a late Democratic surge. The last time polls registered a majority preference for Republicans in congressional races was in President Eisenhower's first term. In the fallout, some old stars are burning pretty dim - and others have had to mobilize for the battle of their careers. Election '94: How the Mighty May Fall
Could a Kennedy lose in Massachusetts? Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), the last and youngest brother, is leading in his sixth bid for reelection. But this year a trim Republican venture capitalist with no political resume is giving him the fight of his career.
Only a decade ago, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo seized the mantle to become the strongest, most credible voice of Democratic liberalism with a single speech at the Democratic National Convention. Now, one political observer calls him the ``poet of our political nostalgia,'' and Mr. Cuomo may be beaten by a virtual unknown whose press secretary is on loan from Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R).
By 1988, Democrats were looking to practical Southern centrists, especially their governors, as the future of the party. The strategy they designed was like a script written just for Chuck Robb, the square-jawed former Marine who married Lyndon Johnson's daughter and went on to become Virginia's governor. But an ``inappropriate'' encounter with a beauty queen in a hotel room has raised the credibility of still other charges and rumors that have washed away Mr. Robb's straight-arrow appeal. His reelection is an uphill fight against Iran-contra celebrity Oliver North.
The most powerful Democrat on Capitol Hill, Tom Foley, the genial Speaker of the House with the likeable face of a basset hound, is at risk in the Washington State district he has represented since 1964. No sitting Speaker of the House has been voted out by his constituents since 1860.
These are the big dogs, the old lions. But what about the up-and-coming talents? The New Democrats?
Take Jim Cooper of Tennessee. The moderate Democratic congressman drew the public scorn of Hillary Rodham Clinton herself for designing the one truly bipartisan health-reform plan in the debate during the past year. Mr. Cooper and the plan became the archetype of a more conservative, small-government kind of Democrat. Yet in his run for the Senate, he is trailing a political neophyte.
Or Kathleen Brown, daughter of a California governor who built the University of California into a world-class system and sister of another California governor who is a periodic presidential Don Quixote. As the year began, she was favored to trounce the most unpopular California governor in history, Republican Pete Wilson. After a campaign centered on crime, immigration, and jobs, Ms. Brown has fallen behind.
Polls alone cannot foretell an election like this. The story of this election will turn heavily on where the intensity lies.
Voting patterns in this year's primaries confirm what campaign professionals have been noting all season. Republicans are voting in record numbers for an off-year election. The intensity is among conservatives, angry at the direction of government and viscerally contemptuous of the president and Mrs. Clinton.
Disillusioned Democrats - not thrilled either about the nation's direction - are setting records by staying home. And this in a year when vulnerable Democratic House seats outnumber vulnerable Republican ones by 3 to 1.
Mr. Clinton remains a powerful image in this election, both figuratively and literally. He has left an impression of a president sufficiently liberal, both fiscally and culturally, that many Democrats in competitive districts have been driven to shun him, running to his right.
Hamlet on the Hudson
After 12 years as governor of New York, Cuomo's star is fading. He has been trailing state Sen. George Pataki (R), a name most New Yorkers had never heard months ago.
``It's longevity. It happened to me,'' says Ed Koch, a former three-term Democratic mayor of New York City. Like many longtime incumbents this year, Cuomo finds that one of the attacks he faces most often is simply that he has been around too long.
But there are other reasons Cuomo is in trouble. ``The taxes,'' says Maria Shafaransky, a secretary in Manhattan, echoing a major attack point for Mr. Pataki. Only Alaska has higher state and local taxes than New York's.
Cuomo is a Democrat for the cities, with his base in the city of cities, in an era when the electorate is becoming increasingly suburban. ``They revile Mario upstate,'' says Mr. Koch. To win, Cuomo needs to mobilize a landslide showing in New York City to offset his weakness elsewhere.
Marine vs. Marine
Few races are meaner than the television skunk-spray contest in Virginia between Sen. Chuck Robb (D) and Oliver North, the Republican nominee so reluctantly embraced by his own party leaders.
In a North ad, asking why Mr. Robb ``can't stop lying,'' the screen shows newspaper stories about cocaine parties where Robb was allegedly present and the cover of Playboy magazine showing the beauty queen who gave Robb a hotel-room massage. Meanwhile the closeup of a worn-looking Robb is blinking in slow motion, as though he were struggling through a drugged stupor.
The Robb campaign denies any association with illegal drugs in an answering ad, then accuses Mr. North of not only lying to Congress, but also of lying to ``school kids.'' North was convicted of obstructing justice in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan years, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
Robb's reputation, so golden so recently, is badly tarnished. Many Robb voters will be drawn from the ranks of those who disdain North more.
``I'm a die-hard Republican. My father's retired military,'' says Karl Ebert, a northern Virginian. ``But Ollie North? Never. He lied, cheated, stole, everything.''
In southern and rural Virginia, beyond the reach of the Washington D.C., beltway and its suburbs of multiple graduate-degree families, North has stirred enthusiasm. His message is anti-Congress and so vehemently anti-Clinton that he recently slipped and asserted that Clinton was ``not my commander in chief.''
Kennedy vs. 32 years
Senator Kennedy is running, unrepentantly, on his record as liberalism's lawmaker, a true believer in activist government solutions to people's problems with the clout to bring them to Massachusetts.
``I reject the laissez-faire notion that all government has to do is get out of the way - and kind, generous, unselfish, wealthy private interests and power will see to it that prosperity trickles down to ordinary people,'' he says in one of his stump speeches.
Kennedy's opponent, Mitt Romney, is also the heir of a political legacy. His father was a Michigan governor and a one-time presidential candidate. Mr. Romney is the kind of yuppie achiever -
a graduate of Harvard Law and Business Schools - that have prospered in Massachusetts in the past decade.
Romney, a successful venture capitalist, is socially liberal in the tradition of many Massachusetts Republicans. But his free-enterprise emphasis is a stark-enough contrast to Kennedy's politics. ``Kennedy represents an outdated approach to the economy that voters are through with,'' he says.
Clout where it counts
Only the president wields more clout than House Speaker Tom Foley, and no one is a more staunch defender than Mr. Foley of the US Congress and the way it operates.
Neither is an enviable position for someone running for reelection in an arid, sparsely populated farming region in eastern Washington, a continent removed from the bustle and bluster of the other Washington. The affable Mr. Foley may be power personified, but many voters from Walla Walla to Republic, Wash., are apparently wondering whose side he is on.
After the state voted for term limits in a 1992 ballot initiative, Foley led a successful suit to overturn it. Even though most voters in his district opposed the initiative, his lawsuit rankles. After long opposing most gun-control measures, Foley supported the assault-weapons ban in the recent crime bill. This has mobilized his district's gun-rights advocates against him.
His opponent, Republican attorney George Nethercutt, has held double-digit leads over Foley since the primary.
``Foley is a man of the institution,'' says Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. ``That's why he's the Speaker and that's why he's in trouble.''
Richards vs. Bush II
Texas Gov. Ann Richards was the tough-talking, silver-haired star of the 1988 Democratic convention, where her razor-wire wit ripped George Bush as a fellow ``born with a silver foot in his mouth.'' She is relatively well-liked still in Texas, according to polls, yet she is locked in a dead heat with the next George Bush, the former president's son.
She is caught in some national crosscurrents that converge in Texas. It has always been a conservative state, and for the last 14 years, conservatives have been steadily moving from their Democratic roots over to the party of Reagan. Her strong stance for abortion rights and her high-profile gay appointees have also mobilized cultural conservatives against her.
Kathleen Brown has never managed to seize the initiative in a California gubernatorial race that was hers to lose. She led Republican Gov. Pete Wilson by as much as 30 percentage points last January.
But Mr. Wilson's positions on crime and immigration have dominated the debate, and a recovering economy has benefitted him. Brown's bid to be the next member of her family on the national scene will now require a major upset.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a tough-minded liberal, not predictable but never far from the Democratic mainstream. Could she ever have imagined three years ago a reelection contest like this one?
Michael Huffington (R) is a freshman representative who has left few marks on Capitol Hill, but he is also the heir to a $70-million Texas oil fortune who is self-funding a challenge to Feinstein's Senate seat. He spent over $6 million to win his current seat in Congress, and he is leading a millionaires' charge of sorts. Federal records show that at least 66 House candidates have spent more than $100,000 of their own money.
Mr. Huffington has come from 26 points behind Feinstein to virtually dead even with his $700,000 to $800,000 per week onslaught of television ads.
* The following staff writers contributed to this report: Clemence Fiagome, David Mutch, Scott Pendleton, David Rohde, Ron Scherer, Mark Trumbull, Daniel B. Wood.