Putting a Different Cast on Election '96

Republican juggernaut slows as Democrats make modest gains in state voting this week

THE Republican dawn suddenly has a dark new cloud.

For months voters have shown little enthusiasm for the field of GOP presidential candidates. Now they are showing concern that the Republican revolution may be going too far, too fast.

Voters rebuffed Republicans this week in off-year elections that were important barometers for both the GOP agenda in Congress and the 1996 presidential race. In contests for statehouses and city halls, voters showed concern over such GOP-proposed initiatives as reforms to Medicare and environmental laws.

In Virginia and Mississippi, Republicans failed to make historic gains in the state legislatures. Elsewhere, voters struck down ballot initiatives on issues that Republicans have championed, such as property rights and term limits.

But that doesn't mean President Clinton should start measuring the Oval Office for new curtains. While Republicans made few gains in the South, a growing GOP stronghold, Democrats regained little ground in the region.

''Clinton still is not going to win the South,'' says Martin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. ''But the public seems to be saying that it is not entirely ready to go all the way down the line toward a Republican realignment.''

Consider Kentucky. The Republicans were expected to win the governor's mansion for the first time in 24 years. GOP candidate Larry Forgy had the Christian right squarely behind him. The only question among pundits was how big the margin of victory would be.

Voters were of a different mind. Seniors packed polling stations to register discontent over GOP proposals to change Medicare. Moderate Republicans chafed over the amount of influence given to the Christian right. Democrat Paul Patton eked out a victory.

For the Democratic Party, the win is a beacon of hope. Kentucky Democrats had been slipping in recent elections. They may now have momentum to mount a serious threat to US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) next year.

But is the victory good news for Bill Clinton in 1996? Not necessarily. The vote, 51 percent to 49 percent, was hardly an endorsement of the Democratic Party. More important, Mr. Patton kept his distance from the president during the campaign. He vowed, for instance, not to support Clinton in 1996 if he continued to press tougher antismoking measures. Tobacco production is important to the Kentucky economy.

''The message to Speaker Newt Gingrich is that there is an uneasy feeling about what Congress is doing,'' says Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call. ''But Clinton has no room to breathe. The question is whether Democrats here will have the guts to even invite Clinton here next year.''

The message was similarly mixed in two other key Southern races. In Mississippi, Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) easily won reelection, but Democrats took every lesser post and retained control of the legislature.

Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University, calls Congress the culprit. In poor, rural states such as his, he says, voters are starting to realize that changes in Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare could hurt the state economy.

''How many people are dependent on the flow of federal dollars through the people of Mississippi?'' he asks. ''Regardless of philosophy, people are starting to analyze what it might mean if those dollars are gone.''

In Virginia, meanwhile, Republican Gov. George Allen gambled and lost. Closely aligned with the GOP agenda across the Potomac, he characterized the election as a referendum on himself. If Republicans had captured control of the legislature, it would have been the first time they had done so in Virginia since Reconstruction. The most voters would give them was a tie in the state Senate.

If Democrats across the country dodged further damage, they shouldn't be too sure that the pendulum is swinging back to them. ''The Democratic Party is still a long way from redefining itself,'' notes Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

Both Republicans and Democrats can find solace, some analysts argue, in the success incumbents had Tuesday night. Along with Governor Fordice, the mayors of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Houston all retained their seats.

Some see this as evidence that voters may be letting go of their disaffection for incumbents. It is a cautious observation. Most reelected mayors are Democrats. Cities tend to favor liberals. Those votes may also reflect concern for what Republican budget cuts in Congress and state capitals mean at the local level.

Ballot initiatives around the country, meanwhile, echoed voter hesitation about the Republican revolution. The term-limits movement, which has rolled through 22 states since 1990, hit a rut in Mississippi. Voters there decided not to cap tenure for state officials.

In Washington State, meanwhile, voters applied the brakes to another GOP staple: property rights. Urban dwellers voted down a referendum that would have required greater compensation to property owners when government regulations affect land values. Arizona rejected a similar measure last year.

Gambling hit several snags. Voters in Jefferson County, Mo., and Indiana's Clark and Floyd Counties, rejected riverboat gaming. Washington State turned down a request by Indian tribes for slot machines. And two cities in Massachusetts snubbed proposals for casinos.

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