US voters tended to base choices on less-than-global issues. SOUTHEAST.

It looked so different a month ago. The opinion polls would have elected Republican Senate incumbents in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina; the Republican was the favorite in Louisiana; and Florida's Democratic challenger felt the GOP incumbent's breath on the back of his neck. Instead, Southern Democrats won big in a series of cliffhangers. The stakes are big for Southern power. With Democrats handily controlling the Senate, Florida's Lawton Chiles is likely to chair the Budget Committee, Mississippi's John Stennis the Appropriations Committee, South Carolina's Ernest Hollings the Commerce Committee, Georgia's Sam Nunn the Armed Services Committee, and - just to the west - Texas's Lloyd Bentsen the Finance Committee.

But Tuesday's vote was no rebuke to budding Southern Republicanism. South Carolina and Florida elected only their second Republican governors in modern times. Tennessee was the lone state to turn a governorship over to a Democrat, as a popular GOP incumbent retired.

Alabama elected its first Republican governor in more than a century; the Democrats lost to a virtually unknown Republican, and nine state legislative seats with it, due to a bitter gubernatorial primary feud that angered voters. It nearly sank Richard Shelby's winning Senate campaign, as well.

Southerners broke other new ground. Democrat William Espy will become Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction, in a close race against a Republican incumbent. He will join Atlanta's John Lewis as the only black congressmen from the Deep South. Overall the GOP lost four seats and gained one in Southeastern states, for a net Republican loss of three.

In the US Senate races, Southern Republicans may have suffered more because of individual campaigns and candidates than because of party or platform. The defeated Republicans in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia were freshman senators with lackluster or offbeat records in the Senate.

But Florida's Gov. Bob Graham and Georgia's Rep. Wyche Fowler out-debated incumbents Paula Hawkins and Mack Mattingly, respectively. And they, and like former Gov. Terry Sanford - who beat recently appointed incumbent James Broyhill in North Carolina - campaigned much more vigorously and visibly all over their states.

Florida's Graham, Alabama's Shelby, and Louisiana's Sen.-elect John Breaux are decidedly conservative Democrats. Georgia's Fowler and North Carolina's Sanford have more liberal records.

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