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Oregon Sends a Message Via Mail-Order Democrat

Democrats take a Senate seat - barely - for first time in three decades; nation's first mail-in vote draws a record turnout

ASHLAND, special senatorial election this week to replace Republican Bob Packwood breaks new ground in several areas.

The victory of Ron Wyden, a veteran congressional Democrat, shifts the balance of power in the United States Senate - at least slightly. And it gives some initial momentum to the minority party on Capitol Hill as it seeks to regain power from its opponents, who won an eight-seat edge when the Republican ''revolution'' erupted in 1994.

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It also shows that an election for national office can be conducted entirely by mail without any apparent hitches while drawing a record turnout.

Even though Mr. Wyden won by a razor-thin margin in this race between a veteran liberal congressman and a conservative GOP newcomer, Democrats now enjoy bragging rights in what some partisans and analysts are calling a referendum on the clash of the titans back in Washington.

''It certainly ought to be a wake-up call to Republicans on issues such as the environment, a woman's right to choose [an abortion], and putting some balance in the balanced budget.'' Wyden says.

But in fact, as senior party operatives in both camps acknowledged right up until the final votes were cast Tuesday, this was not a clear test of President Clinton's leadership or of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's influence.

In this regard, Oregon's vote did not pattern 1994 elections around the West - when Republicans successfully ran against Mr. Clinton and his controversial Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

Yet a survey of Oregon voters taken more than the five days before the deadline to turn in ballots in the first vote-by-mail for congressional office did indicate that national politics played a role in their choices. The poll of 1,044 voters taken for the four television networks and the Associated Press showed nearly half saying the GOP congressional agenda or Clinton administration policies were important factors for them.

Probed further on their views, these voters tended to pick Clinton over congressional Republicans as being more concerned about what is best for average Americans and their families. And they were more inclined to blame Republicans in Congress than the Clinton administration for the current budget standoff.

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This survey produced some good news for Senate majority leader Bob Dole, the embattled leader in the Republican dog fight to challenge Clinton in November. Asked which GOP hopeful they favored, 45 percent of the respondents picked Mr. Dole. Fourteen percent chose Steve Forbes, 5 percent Pat Buchanan, 4 percent Phil Gramm, and 2 percent Lamar Alexander. Oregon will hold its presidential primary election March 12. At the same time, this sampling of voters gave Clinton 50 percent of the vote to Dole's 36 percent in a mock election between the two.

Republican officials looked for comfort in the fact that Wyden won by less than 2 percent of the votes cast. ''The results in Oregon make clear that Bill Clinton will not be able to take any state for granted in November,'' said Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. ''He'll have to fight hard for the electoral votes in the states as traditionally Democrat as Oregon.''

Even those registered as Democrats or Republicans here have a tradition and history of voting independently. They had been choosing Republican US senators ever since Mr. Packwood ousted four-term Democrat Wayne Morse in 1968. And yet they went for Clinton over George Bush in 1992 and Michael Dukakis over Mr. Bush four years before that.

The method of voting in this election - a three-week period during which voters could mail or hand-deliver the ballots sent to them - generated just as much interest as the candidates.

Critics warned of the possibility of fraudulent voting or of undue influence on individual voters by employers, religious leaders, or dominant family members. But there appears to have been no such problems in this race, which saved taxpayers about $1 million over what would have been spent on polling-booth voting.

It also seems clear that mail voting increases participation - up to 70 percent of registered voters in this case - although the publicity about Packwood's forced resignation under an ethical cloud may have had something to do with it.

Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling said Oregonians had ''a unique opportunity with this special election to reaffirm one of democracy's most basic principles: that government is best which is governed by the most.''

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