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Message of November Surprise

Democratic gains temper impeachment ardor, leave Congress a House more divided.

Yes, the Republicans still control Capitol Hill. And yes, strictly local issues decided race after race this week.

But in Washington, where the political class has hung on every twist and turn of the Monica Lewinsky saga for months, the political landscape has been dramatically repainted.

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The threat of impeachment hanging over President Clinton's head has begun to dissipate. Though most voters say their views on Mr. Clinton's sex scandal didn't affect how they voted, the impeachment issue still presented an important subtext to the campaign.

Republicans, looking long in the face yesterday despite the fact they kept control of the House, the Senate, and 31 out of 50 governorships, acknowledged that the impeachment matter "cluttered" their message.

Democrats - who not long ago feared Clinton's woes could sink their election chances - turned the impeachment issue on its head by doing a better job of turning out their "base voters," the rock-solid Democrats who responded to the party's message on education, Social Security, and health care.

In gaining House seats - at least five - the Democrats bucked history, which has shown the presidential party typically losing seats in midterm elections. The Republicans also failed to add to their 55 to 45 majority in the Senate. In state legislatures, Democrats defied tradition, too, making gains in a branch of government that will control much of the redistricting process. And Democrats captured the biggest prize of the day, the California governorship, which gives the party a big boost when congressional districts are redrawn in 2001.

African-American voters, very strong supporters of Clinton, turned out in higher-than-usual numbers, helping Democrats to victories in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia. Democratic victories in the South, which had become a Republican stronghold, showed that the party is alive and well in that part of the country.

In the end, exit polls show voters rewarded Democrats for the strong economy. Race by race, elections pivoted on local issues - whether it be education or the environment or gambling.

Impact on Congress

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Democratic gains will undoubtedly temper the ardor for impeachment on Capitol Hill. Even before the Tuesday vote, proponents of impeachment faced an uphill battle as opinion polls showed consistent opposition to Clinton's removal. Now, Republicans are talking about how they can dispose of the issue as quickly as possible. "It's over," says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist based in Atlanta.

At a Monitor breakfast yesterday, Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson predicted the House would follow the impeachment-inquiry schedule laid out by Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and be finished by the end of the year.

Mr. Nicholson also maintained that there is nothing wrong with the Republican agenda of tax cuts, strengthening national defense, and reforming Social Security. Rather, he said, "what we need to do is communicate that more forcefully." "We hung onto a majority," he continued. "I'm disappointed to lose any election, but as W.C. Fields said, 'I'd rather be me than them.' "

Still, GOP activists expect a period of soul-searching and recriminations over what went wrong. By yesterday, the arrow-slinging had already started. Possible GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes put out a memo on "how the GOP can again become a party of principle and high purpose, instead of a party of timid, office-clinging incumbents."

Mr. Forbes said the budget deal, in which the Republican majority failed to get tax cuts or educational savings accounts, "was evidence of a party adrift from its core beliefs."

Reaction of religious right

Randy Tate, head of the Christian Coalition, echoed that sentiment. "Republican leaders tried to win the campaign solely based on anti-Clinton sentiment," said Mr. Tate in an interview. "The Democrats had an agenda, albeit on the more liberal side ... but some agenda will beat no agenda every time."

Throughout the 1990s, religious conservatives have been the Republicans' most loyal voters, and Tate maintains they did turn out on Tuesday. They prevented the election from being a "total liberal rout," he says.

On paper, the Democrats made modest gains - not only in the House, but also in state legislatures. At press time, Democrats had picked up a net gain of 58 state legislative seats nationwide and control of four more chambers. Like the historical trend with US House seats, which usually favors the nonpresidential party, the president's party also usually loses state legislative seats in midterm elections.

Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional races at the University of California at San Diego, notes that under current conditions - strong economy, high presidential approval rating - the Democrats at worst would have lost only a handful of seats.

In the two midterm elections since World War II when the president's approval rating has been above 60 percent and the economy doing well, the presidential party has lost only a few seats. In 1962, the Democrats lost four seats, and in 1986, the Republicans lost five. So, in fact, Mr. Jacobson says, "the Democrats did a little better than expected."

In many ways, the election was a ringing endorsement of the status quo, as Democrats and Republicans traded pickups in the Senate and in governors' seats. For every stunning upset by a Democrat - such as the defeats of Republican Sens. Alfonse D'Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina - the Republicans had an answer: Republican Jim Bunning will take over Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford's open seat in Kentucky, and Republican Peter Fitzgerald unseated Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.

Feingold holds on

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold's victory in Wisconsin, against a tough challenge by Rep. Mark Neumann, appeared to vindicate Senator Feingold's decision not to take special-interest money for his campaign. But in general, campaign-finance reform was not a big issue with voters.

In the South, Democrats are celebrating victories throughout a region that has been going increasingly Republican for more than two decades. The party picked up the governorships of Alabama and South Carolina, two of the most conservative states in the country, and held onto the Georgia governor's chair as well. Democrats also won Senate seats in the Carolinas.

But Mr. Ayres, the Republican strategist, warns against misreading the South: "It means what we've known all along - that the South will remain competitive, with a Republican bias, but not a Republican lock."

In the Mountain West, the GOP picked up an important governor's seat in Colorado. "Colorado will become the Republican headquarters of the country," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

* Francine Kiefer in Washington contributed to this story.

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