THE Democratic Party got a mixed message this week as it heads into 1996 hoping to retake ground from the Republicans.
By handily winning the mayorship here, liberal Democratic stalwart Willie Brown showed the importance of old-fashioned grass-roots campaigning in urban politics. Jesse Jackson Jr., in trumping his GOP opponent in an Illinois congressional election, showed that Democrats can reach out to a new generation of blacks.
But the Democratic loss in special congressional election in California's Silicon Valley may temper one strategy the party was banking on for next year: using House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a foil.
Moderate Republican Tom Campbell won a decisive victory over Democrat Jerry Estruth in a race to fill a vacated seat in the district of high-technology firms and affluent suburbs. The campaign was marked by a nationally directed Democratic party attack on Mr. Gingrich as an extremist seeking to make deep cuts in Medicare and other services.
In a preview of their 1996 effort to retake control of the US House, the Estruth campaign tried to convince voters that support for Mr. Campbell amounted to ''One More Vote for Newt.'' But the Republican won 58 percent to Estruth's 35 percent (the balance went to independent candidate Linh Dao).
''The result doesn't send a good message to the Democrats on their Gingrich strategy,'' says San Jose State political scientist Terry Christensen.
But analysts also argue the Democrats picked a poor first target. Campbell, a former congressman and state senator, is well-known in the district as both a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, a supporter of abortion rights, gun control, and strict environmental regulation.
''It is very hard to take a man like Tom Campbell who had reputation in the area for being a moderate Republican ... and then try to portray him as a Newt Gingrich Republican to a highly educated electorate,'' comments University of California, Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.
As the low, 25 percent turnout demonstrated, the anti-Gingrich campaign failed to mobilize Democratic voters, who have a clear registration edge in a district represented for the last 21 years by retiring Democrat Norm Mineta. The Campbell campaign was more successful in organizing its core Republican backers, as evidenced by the large numbers of absentee ballots, more than a quarter of the total votes cast.
Still, Democratic strategists see some evidence the tactic may work against a more conservative target. ''The only way [Campbell] could win was to distance himself from Newt Gingrich,'' California Democratic Party head Bill Press told the Associated Press.
Democrats may also take some solace in the election of Mr. Brown, one of the most prominent African-American politicians in the country. His victory owes much to the skills learned over a 31-year career in the state Assembly, including 15 years as perhaps the most powerful Speaker in the state's history.
Brown ran a classic urban campaign, appearing at hundreds of small events and mounting a well-organized effort to get out ''low-propensity'' voters. He overcame Mayor Jordan's portrayal of him as a tool of moneyed, special interests. He painted the former police chief as an inept leader. Brown won 57 percent to 43 percent.
In Illinois, the landslide victory by Mr. Jackson, son of the prominent civil-rights leader, will give Democrats a fresh young voice in Congress. It may also add vitality to the Congressional Black Caucus as its prominent chairman, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, leaves to take charge of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
More broadly, Democrats hope the triumph of the son of the prominent civil-rights activist is a sign that the party can counter the wavering loyalty of black voters in presidential races. The percentage of blacks voting for Democratic presidential candidates has dropped from 95 percent in 1964 to 82 percent in 1992.