WASHINGTON — ONE year after Republicans rocked Washington by winning control of Congress, today's key off-year state elections may show whether the GOP tide is still rising or beginning to ebb.
The South is 1995's most important vote battleground - foreshadowing the region's likely role in next year's presidential election. Hard-fought governors' races in Mississippi and Kentucky will test the Republican Party's new-found Southern strength. Virginia may become the first Southern state with a GOP-controlled legislature since Reconstruction.
Democrats, however, claim the time is ripe for counterrevolution. They think congressional budget-balancing moves such as proposed changes in Medicare are beginning to worry voters. Many state Democratic candidates have thus been trying to tie opponents to GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
There's some evidence that Democratic Party officials are right about voter worries. If they are, President Clinton's reelection team will surely take heart.
The South will be this year's most important vote battle-ground.
Take Mississippi, where incumbent Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice has been locked in a bitter reelection battle with his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Dick Molpus.
Until a few weeks ago, the popular and acerbic Governor Fordice looked to be cruising easily toward a second term. But in recent weeks his once-comfortable lead has narrowed considerably. Polls now put Fordice ahead of his challenger by around 45 to 40 percent, with a relatively large slice of the electorate, 15 percent, still undecided.
''As concerns grow at the national level over Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare, it's starting to alarm people in Mississippi,'' says Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University. ''They've become quite aware that they receive the second-most amount of federal transfer payments of any state in the union.''
Local issues play into Fordice's struggles, of course - among them the fact that the plain-spoken governor has mocked campaign spots featuring his opponent's wife. But the statewide trend is such that in some lower-level state races, such as lieutenant governor, Democratic candidates have come from behind to take a lead.
Mr. Wiseman points out that Fordice's election in 1990 marked the first time that Mississippi had elected a GOP governor since Reconstruction. ''This being a Republican state is still new to Mississippi, '' he says. ''It's not like it would be a radical change [for many to once again vote Democratic]''.
The Kentucky governor's race has similarly taken on national overtones. Lt. Gov. Paul Patton, the Democratic nominee for an open chief-executive's mansion, has tried to tie GOP candidate attorney Larry Forgy to House Speaker Gingrich.
Republican Larry Forgy, however, has given as good as he has got. Defusing a potent issue, he persuaded Speaker Gingrich to withdraw a GOP congressional proposal to sell off four federally owned Kentucky lakes that serve as popular fishing and boating areas. And Forgy has associated his Democratic opponent with President Clinton's antismoking efforts. That's a telling blow in one of the country's largest tobacco-producing regions.
''It's looking more and more as if Forgy is going to win,'' says Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call and a state political analyst.
A low voter turnout might boost Democratic chances in Kentucky. That's because elderly voters worried about Medicare changes are likely to go to the polls, no matter what. But the real question may be whether Forgy can manage more than 53 percent of the vote. If he does, he would surpass the victory margin of any Republican in a statewide race in Kentucky in recent years, and likely help elect many lower-level GOP candidates on his coattails.
Meanwhile, the most historically resonant race is shaping up in Virginia. The Old Dominion has seen its state Republican Party, pushed by Gov. George Allen, explicitly model itself on the GOP revolutionaries in Congress. It's likely that this year the GOP will overcome the Democrats' four-seat margin in the House, and three-seat margin in the Senate, to seize control of the Virginia legislature.
''It would be the first time Virginia has had a Republican governor and a Republican legislative body,'' says Michelle Travis, a George Mason University political scientist.
If state Republicans do reach this high water mark of power, they may then begin to split apart, says Ms. Travis. She says the most important division in Virginia politics may not be between Democrats and Republicans, but between moderate northern Virginia Republicans and their harder-line downstate GOP fellows.
One fillip to the national aspects of today's off-year elections is CityVote, a non-binding presidential straw poll taking place in 17 cities nationwide. Intended to focus attention on urban problems, CityVote has faced legal difficulties and general indifference from the candidates. But the presence of Gen. Colin Powell among the 21 White House hopefuls on the CityVote ballot means the poll may serve as an intriguing early indicator of the retired Joint Chiefs Chairman's political strength.