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Chalk One Up for the Democrats

DEMOCRATS narrowed the Republican advantage in the United States Senate by one seat last week. They were the victors in the Oregon special election to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of GOP Sen. Bob Packwood. The win, leaving Republicans with a majority of 53 to 47, was both expected and unexpected.

Democrats were slightly favored to pick up the seat, since the state has a liberal, Democratic tilt to it. In the '88 presidential race, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis beat then-Vice President George Bush by 4 percentage points in Oregon, followed by a 10-point win by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton over President Bush in '92.

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While Republicans had held the state's two Senate seats since 1966 and '68, both Mr. Packwood and Mark Hatfield, who is retiring at the end of this year, were from the moderate wing of the party. Both are considerably less conservative than state Senate President Gordon Smith, who was the party's standard-bearer in the special election.

A very Democratic primary between two of the state's three Democratic congressmen left the victor, Ron Wyden, quite bloodied. The situation was made worse by an embarrassing televised debate performance, during which he was unable to answer a reporter's question about how much a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk cost. He also could not locate Bosnia on a globe.

These problems, combined with Mr. Smith's own personal fortune (from which he was spending freely) and the state legislator's flawless campaign, made Wyden a slight underdog in most preelection handicapping. Before the ballots were even counted, national Democratic strategists were explaining how this election slipped from their fingers.

Now, with victory in hand, Democrats are spinning the election as a referendum on the national Republican agenda, just as the Republicans would have done had things turned out differently. In truth, it's clear just from looking at the TV commercials that ran during the closing weeks of the campaign that the attacks on both sides had little if anything to do with policy debates in Washington. Indeed, most were personal attacks.

According to a survey taken by Voter News Service for the four TV networks, Democrat Wyden won by 9 percentage points among women, while Republican Smith won by 10 points among men. What proved critical was that 57 percent of all ballots were cast by women, tipping the election to Wyden. Support for Wyden seemed to be predicated on concern about education and the environment, while Smith's voters cited taxes as their chief concern.

Did issues motivate more women to vote than men? Did Democrats target women with their get-out-the-vote effort, knowing that the gender gap gave them an advantage among female voters? Or, as some people half-jokingly suggest, were women simply more likely to mail their ballots in on time, or less likely to lose them, than their male counterparts?

While the Oregon win certainly helps Democrats in their efforts to recapture control of the Senate, the odds still look long. Republicans are favored to capture two open seats currently held by retiring Democratic incumbents, in Alabama and Arkansas. Four other open seats are considered toss-ups. Three Democratic Senate incumbents - Max Baucus of Montana, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota - are considered only even-money bets for reelection. This contrasts with Democrats not yet favored in any seat held by the GOP, and running about even with Republicans in four more - against incumbents Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Larry Pressler of South Dakota, and in open seats in Maine and Oregon.

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Democrats are more likely to lose several seats in November than they are to gain, putting the battle for control off until 1998.

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