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The Democratic comeback

AMERICANS voted Tuesday to tighten the competitiveness of their political scene. In the Capitol, the return of a Democratic majority to the US Senate, reinforcing a slightly more Democratic House, restores a greater equality between the legislative and executive branches. President Reagan's coattails, toted some 25,000 campaign trail miles on behalf of GOP candidates, proved embarrassingly short. His reputation as a political miracle worker has been reduced. He will have to count all the more heavily on Republican moderates in the Senate, from their weaker position, to fashion coalitions to stave off defeat on domestic and foreign issues.

The President can remain effective if he takes the coalition route, working with conservative Democrats, particularly in the South. But if he adopts a veto stance, he may well forfeit the political initiative to the emerging political forces looking ahead to 1988 and beyond. That applies to his own party as well as to the Democrats. Vice-President George Bush's own presidential prospects were diminished by the President's inability to share the benefits of his leadership approval. GOP contenders for '88 will now feel emboldened to make their bids sooner.

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In the state races, Republicans achieved parity again with the Democrats in governorships. In many cases, state electorates split their tickets between Republicans and Democrats for Senate and governor, again showing an inclination to accent the checks and balances permitted by the American system.

The most striking set of victories came to the Democrats in the South and the Midwest, especially in Senate contests. GOP Sunbelt ambitions were clearly set back. The plight of farmers was reflected in the GOP losses in the Dakotas, Colorado, and into the South. Several distinctly liberal Democrats were elected in states where the economy was an issue. Some were old-guard Democrats with a zest for debate: Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Brock Adams, apparently, in Washington. Others were the kind of younger Democrat turned out of the Senate by the Reagan landslide in 1980: Tim Wirth in Colorado and Tom Daschle in South Dakota, a staunch advocate of farm assistance. The flagging oil economy helped decide the Texas governor's race against incumbent Democrat Mark White, ousted by former Gov. Bill Clements, the man he defeated four years ago in an equally hard-fought contest.

The negative nature of much of this fall's campaigning, unhappy in itself, does not seem to have had much effect on the outcome. Let's hope the overuse of negative ads will prove self-correcting. Neither does money, though evident in the overwhelming return of incumbents to the House, appear to have tipped the balance in either party's favor.

Given Tuesday's outcome, the GOP can hardly now boast of a Reagan revolution or a political realignment. The public remains more interested in pragmatic results than in permanent ideological or partisan advantage. The public chose to even the game - compelling both sides to strive harder to attain a leadership edge.

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