The big races start to grow tighter Democrats gain as election nears

November 01, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- An unexpectedly large number of major 1990 races now appear to be virtual dead heats, just five days before the election, according to public and private polls.

This development generally reflects gains for Democratic candidates in recent weeks, since, in almost every case, the close contests are for governorships or Senate seats that Republicans had hoped to hold.

Included are four of the top gubernatorial races -- in California, Texas, Florida and Illinois, where Republicans currently occupy the governorship.

Meantime, Republican senators are fighting for political survival in Oregon, Minnesota and North Carolina.

The sole Democratic-held Senate seat that appears to be in jeopardy is in Hawaii.

"It's been 30 days of incredible movement and change," said Alex Gage, a Republican pollster based in Southfield, Mich. "I've never seen that much volatility in public attitudes."

In most instances, these dizzying mood swings reflect a mixture of national and local factors, particularly a nationwide, anti-Republican trend resulting from the recent debate in Washington over tax fairness, analysts say.

These experts emphasize, however, that Republican candidates could well come back to win many, if not most, of these major races.

"What's surprising at this point is not that Republicans could still win but that the Democrats are even close," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster in Washington. He said that the Democratic trend of recent weeks "may have run its course, but I don't have any indication that the tide has turned."

In Texas, a Gallup Poll published yesterday showed Republican Clayton Williams and Democrat Ann Richards in a 44-44 deadlock among likely voters. Just two weeks earlier, the Republican led by 10 percentage points in the same poll, and one of the Democrat's top advisers had been quoted as saying that she was through.

Texas politicians attribute the shift to gaffes by Mr. Williams, a millionaire rancher and oilman in his first campaign for public office, as well as national factors. Mr. Williams has been pressed for weeks, for example, on exactly how he would keep his no-new-taxes pledge, especially since President Bush was forced to break a similar campaign vow.

In Florida, Democrat Lawton M. Chiles Jr. holds a 1-point lead over Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, according to a new statewide poll released last night by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md.

Though the Florida race had been tight for weeks, expectations last summer were that Mr. Chiles would win easily. That prediction faded, however, under the governor's aggressive and expensive effort to portray the Democrat, a former U.S. senator, as a political insider and paint himself as the true outsider in the race.

In California, the competition between Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson has been close for months. Three new polls released within the past week show the candidates still within 4 percentage points or less, a difference that is within the surveys' margin of error.

In Illinois, recent polls by the Chicago Sun-Times and WLS-TV showed Republican Jim Edgar and Democrat Neil Hartigan within 2 or 3 points, though a third survey, by the Chicago Tribune, had the Republican ahead.

The two are competing for the job held since 1976 by retiring Republican Gov. James R. Thompson, with state taxes a central issue.

In Ohio, the fifth of the major-state governors' contests, former Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, a Republican, holds a dwindling advantage over Democratic Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze Jr. in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

Beyond the big states, at least a dozen other governors' races remain highly competitive.

Six are for governorships currently held by Democrats (Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont) and six by Republicans (Alabama, Kansas, Maine, New Mexico, Nebraska and Oklahoma).

In Senate campaigns, a new statewide poll for KPTV in Portland, Ore., shows Democratic challenger Harry Lonsdale leading Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield by 3 points, 48-45.

Back in August, before Mr. Lonsdale launched an aggressive ad campaign built around anti-Washington themes, Mr. Hatfield, a 24-year Senate veteran, held a seemingly insurmountable 36-point lead.

In Minnesota, GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, not initially viewed as vulnerable, is also being attacked by a political outsider, Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone. A recent poll for KARE-TV showed the senator ahead of his Democratic rival by 1 point.

In North Carolina, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt has surprised the experts with his strong campaign against conservative GOP Sen. Jesse Helms.

A Charlotte Observer poll this month showed the Democrat leading, though most analysts rate the contest a deadlock.

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