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Color-Free Politics

RACE may still be a factor in the way some Americans cast their votes, but its influence continues to fade. Five large cities - New York, Seattle, Cleveland, New Haven, Conn.; and Durham, N.C. - have new black mayors. Five statewide offices are held by blacks, including Democrat L.Douglas Wilder, the incumbent lieutenant governor of Virginia, who apparently won a tight race for chief executive of that state.

Governorships have eluded black politicians until now. Mr. Wilder avoided any reference to race during his campaign. He staked out a strong abortion-rights position and zeroed in on his opponent's use of negative advertising. Republican J.Marshall Coleman fumbled the abortion issue, wavering between a hard-line and moderate antiabortion stand. He also accused the media of pulling for Wilder's ``historic'' victory, a charge that introduced race into the campaign, but had little impact.

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Wilder won some 40 percent of the white vote and nearly all the black vote. His moderate tone proved especially effective among the wealthier, more liberal voters in the suburbs of northern Virginia.

In New York's mayoral race, David Dinkins employed a similar moderate, inclusive approach to defeat well-known prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani. Mr. Dinkins couldn't escape the race issue as he campaigned among the city's Jewish voters, many of whom criticized the candidate's association with Jesse Jackson. But this probably didn't hurt him as much as Mr. Giuliani's constant hammering at Dinkins's past taxpaying indiscretions.

Both Dinkins and Wilder won by much less than pre-election and exit polls indicated (and Virginia Republicans are calling for a recount). Many undecideds obviously opted for their opponents. Race may have played a part in those decisions, but few white voters would admit to that.

Racial politics stayed in the background of the Virginia and New York races by choice of the candidates. Individuals were elected primarily because they could appeal to voters across ethnic lines. Those lines, while still there, are thus made a little less divisive. And that's good news for all Americans.

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