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Democrats Brace for GOP Gains

Races for Congress, governors tighten in final hours, but trends still favor Republicans

TOMORROW, Americans elect the entire next House of Representatives, over one-third of the Senate, and 35 state governors.

For the first time in decades, Republicans are within range of seating majorities at all three levels. And some of the most powerful Democrats in politics are in reelection trouble.

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But while Republicans are certain to make at least deep inroads against Democratic dominance, more race-by-race outcomes are too close to call than most political professionals can ever remember.

The results in scores of races have come down to developments and ad campaigns over the past weekend and today.

``In a lot of races, a change of a percentage point could change the outcome,'' Democratic consultant Mark Mellman says.

House Speaker Tom Foley, for example, has moved from running substantially behind his Republican challenger in his district in eastern Washington State to being dead even going into the weekend.

But Mr. Foley's support was still below 50 percent, a dangerous level for any incumbent, since undecided voters tend to come down in favor of challengers. And on Friday, Ross Perot visited the district to endorse the challenger, George Nethercutt.

The sands have been shifting both ways in the late days of this campaign. Republican whip Newt Gingrich, the would be House Speaker, canceled other weekend plans on Friday to return to his Georgia district through election day. The challenge to his reelection, though still a long shot, suddenly appeared more serious.

The benchmarks in this election cycle have settled at a net gain of about 30 seats in the House for the GOP (10 short of a majority), a slim Republican majority in the Senate, and a Republican majority of governorships.

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If Republicans beat those marks, especially in the House, many lobbyists and close political observers expect the party to be headier and more assertive in trying to set the political agenda on Capitol Hill during the next two years. But even lesser gains will increase the party's strength and cut into the Clinton administration's already weak leverage in Congress.

``Essentially, midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power,'' says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, who sees 1994 as a mirror image of the 1982 midterm elections that brought a wave of Democrats into Congress to counter a then-unpopular President Reagan.

Republicans are certainly seeking to define tomorrow's vote that way. In the campaign headquarters of many Republican Senate candidates across the country, signs remind staffers of the campaign focus: ``It's Bill Clinton, stupid'' - playing off the famous ``The economy, stupid'' sign in the Clinton campaign war room.

But if Republicans are reading this as an ideological election in which voters are calling for a smaller, leaner government that is tougher on crime, Democrats read it more broadly. ``There's no evidence this is an ideological election at all,'' says Mr. Mellman, ``unless cynicism and distrust are an ideology.''

Both Republicans and Democrats agree on three powerful currents coursing through tomorrow's contests:

Voters are frustrated that economic growth is not raising their wages; voters sense an erosion in cultural values that extends to a lack of safety in their neighborhoods; and voters hold a deep distrust of the way their government, especially Congress, operates.

One upshot of anti-Congress sentiment: Eight states will vote on term limits for their members of Congress next week against little opposition. In the end, each of tomorrow's races will be voted on one at a time, and even some contests thought to be decided showed signs of tightening:

* In the California governor's race, Kathleen Brown's challenge to GOP incumbent Pete Wilson was all but written off until a poll released going into the weekend showed her only 4 percentage points behind, with Gov. Wilson under 50 percent.

* Joel Hyatt's shot at an Ohio Senate seat against Republican Mike DeWine has long been discounted, but a new poll shows him only 5 percentage points down.

* Dan Rostenkowski, a veteran House powerbroker under indictment on 17 counts of corruption, has been considered a shoo-in, but Republicans claim survey numbers now show him trailing the challenger, Michael Flanagan.

* Two Democratic senators with comfortable leads only weeks ago, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, have slipped into dead heats with their opponents.

* Just as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) had begun to pull away from challenger Michael Huffington, powered by his admission that he had employed an illegal immigrant in his household, Ms. Feinstein ran into similar trouble.

More signs of the times: Third-party and independent candidates are proliferating like Perots. Voters registering outside the two major parties rose to 10.4 percent this year from 1.9 percent in 1962, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. The GOP has nominated a record number of black candidates, though it shows no discernible gains among black voters. Of the 14 candidates for Congress under the age of 30, 11 of them are Republicans.

If Republicans do as well as expected in the South tomorrow, they will enter the final - state and local level - stage of the realignment of the region from essentially Democratic 30 years ago to essentially Republican.

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