Milestone US Election Gauges Voter Anger HL Turnout critical in determining if GOP will rout Democrats today

VOTER turnout today will be critical in deciding whether Republicans force the biggest realignment in modern political history or merely make gains at the margins.

As people from Long Island to Los Angeles troop to the polls in the climactic day of election '94, at least 80 races for governor and Congress remain tossups.

``Get out the vote'' efforts will be particularly crucial in determining how many of those seats will bear Democratic labels.

Sensing the importance of the turnout, candidates from both parties are doing what they can to move their supporters from the couch to the polling booth. For instance:

* In Virginia's tart-tongued US Senate race, the campaign of GOP challenger Oliver North expects to call 200,000 voters in the stretch-drive of the campaign. Democratic incumbent Charles Robb hopes to match that effort, spending $600,000.

* In the deadlocked Senate contest in Pennsylvania, incumbent Harris Wofford (D) has recruited 10,000 volunteers to call Democratic and independent voters. Backers of Republican challenger US Rep. Rick Santorum have been phoning Republicans, independents, and swing Democrats in all of the state's 67 counties.

* In Houston, black Democratic leaders have 2,500 volunteers distributing information on where to vote in the city's black neighborhoods. One of their pitches: Support Gov. Anne Richards (D) in the Texas governor's race.

Still, Republicans aren't intimidated by such efforts.

``I think the Democratic vote is going to be very choppy,'' says Republican National Committee spokesman Chuck Greener. ``I think the real problem they have is there is no reason to come out and vote for a Democrat. They haven't run a campaign based on an idea. Instead, they've run a lot of local races based on personality.''

Low Democrat turnout

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, agrees: ``The primaries had the lowest Democratic turnout in 30 years.'' Turnout, he says, will decide whether ``it's going to be a mitigated disaster or an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats.''

In 10 deadlocked races for US Senate and tight governors' races in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas, turnout could be the deciding factor. Between 50 and 75 House races have been rated too close to call by pollsters and news organizations. Mr. Gans estimates that the candidates in a contest must be within 3 percentage points of each other for turnout to have an impact.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Mike Casey says both parties will suffer from lower turnouts in an off-year election. ``Our campaigns know turnout is lower in a nonpresidential election,'' he says. ``It's always going to be a factor, but they're addressing it.''

Only weeks before the election, polls showed that Democratic voters were less enthusiastic about voting than Republicans were. A Gallup poll taken in the last week of October found that Democrats remain less interested in the race and theoretically less intent on voting than Republicans are. When asked how much they had thought about the upcoming election, 62 percent of Republicans said quite a lot and only 48 percent of Democrats said they had.

For Democrats in Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and governor races in New York and Texas, a crucial factor will be black voter turnout.

Last week in New York City, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged black voters to turn out and support embattled New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. In Houston black leaders expected 2,500 volunteers to urge African Americans to support Governor Richards.

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, says the prospect of a GOP-controlled House has set off alarm bells among members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who are now aggressively campaigning for white Democrats across the US.

President Clinton's approval rating has risen with the military operation in Haiti, but Mr. Bositis warns that conservative southern Democrats risk losing black votes by appealing to conservative whites.

``The average Democrat [running for office] in the South has a voting-age population that is 14 percent black,'' he says. ``Many of them are running on crime or running as `new Democrats,' which can alienate some of their black voter base.''

Painting the apocalypse

During the final week of the campaign, Mr. Clinton primarily played the role of trying to energize the Democrat base in areas north of the Mason-Dixon line. Painting apocalyptic pictures of a return to ``Reaganomics'' if Republicans gain control of Congress, Clinton and other Democrats have seized on the GOP's ``Contract with America'' as a way to scare the party faithful into voting.

If the Democrats can turn out voters in regions other than the conservative South, Gans says, they may be able to minimize their losses.

``If they get out their vote it may mean the difference between, let's say, 28 or 34 seats'' going to the GOP in the House, Gans says. ``It's a question of mitigating your losses. It's not a question of changing the course of these elections.''

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