WASHINGTON -- Here's what to look for when the election returns come in tonight:
* GOVERNORS -- The three most politically significant contests in the nation are those for the governorships of the big Sun Belt states -- California, Texas and Florida -- that are all held by Republicans.
Going to the wire, the Democrats are favorites to gain one of the three with former Sen. Lawton Chiles narrowly leading incumbent Republican Bob Martinez in Florida.
In California, Republican Pete Wilson holds a razor-thin edge over Democrat Dianne Feinstein. And in Texas, Republican Clayton Williams and Democrat Ann Richards are rated essentially dead even.
If Democrats win two of the three, they will count the election a major success, although most of them would be satisfied with one. Similarly, the Republicans, whose expectations have been sharply reduced in the last three weeks, could claim a success if they hold two of the three big states.
The key here, of course, is that the Republicans need the governorships to have some leverage in dealing with Democratic legislatures on reapportionment in 1992, when the three states will gain 14 new House seats at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest.
But there can be other implications for 1992 politics in the party that controls such major states.
There are other gubernatorial campaigns that are politically important for a variety of special reasons. In Massachusetts, for example, a victory by the acerbic conservative Democrat, John Silber, would seem to assure a struggle within the Democratic Party in the next two years on which direction it should take on social questions.
The contest in Alabama also has potentially important meaning. If Democrat Paul Hubbert upsets Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, he will be held up as proof of the theory that progressive Democrats can win in the South if they take a tough line on such issues as crime and capital punishment.
The outcome of gubernatorial elections in Alabama, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts also may shape the perception in the political world of the cutting power of the abortion rights issue. If Democrats Hubbert, Chiles and Richards and Republican William Weld in Massachusetts win close races, their successes inevitably will be traced to their support for abortion rights -- particularly if polls show significant voting across party lines.
Democrats now hold 29 governorships, Republicans 21. The 11-hour consensus among political pros is the Democrats should gain at least two.
* SENATE -- Results here are likely to be murky -- and subject to wildly conflicting analyses by party spokesmen as the returns come in. The Senate is now 55-45 Democratic and originally Republicans had expected to gain two or three seats to position themselves to recapture control in 1992, when more vulnerable Democratic seats will be at stake.
As it has turned out, Republicans will have bragging rights if they hold the Democrats to an even split. The races to watch are those in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Hawaii and -- more than any other -- North Carolina.
If either Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota or Mark Hatfield of Oregon lose, the results will be read as evidence of strong feeling against incumbents in general and Republicans in particular. That argument may not stand up to close examination but it will be difficult to refute nonetheless.
The Massachusetts campaign is seen as a test of the national reaction against incumbents and politics as usual. If Democratic incumbent John Kerry is defeated, politicians in both parties will be shaken. If Kerry defeats Republican Jim Rappaport, the lesson will be that even a hostile electorate can be rallied by an incumbent if he or she makes a strong case that the alternative isn't a better risk. That is essentially the argument that both Kerry and Boschwitz have been making in the final days.
The Senate election in Hawaii is important only because of its effect on the final party division. Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, is the only sitting Democrat other than Kerry still considered vulnerable.
In North Carolina, the contest between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt is probably the most intriguing of the year. If Gantt succeeds in becoming the first black Democrat ever elected to the Senate, he will become a major player in national party politics overnight -- and a clear rival to Jesse Jackson and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia as the leading political spokesman for black Americans.
The Helms-Gantt contest is, however, particularly important as a test of race-baiting politics. As Helms has fallen slightly behind, he has been attacking Gantt on the issue of affirmative action -- translated as "racial quotas" -- in employment, the same issue that made David Duke such a formidable candidate in Louisiana. If Helms survives, that issue will receive far more attention in future campaigns.
The North Carolina race also provides a critical test of negative campaigning -- whether the backlash against it is enough to offset the success politicians have realized with negative tactics.
* HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES -- The House is now 258-176 Democratic (with one vacancy) and the Republicans originally expected to reverse the historical trend and gain a few seats because of the low base from which they were operating. The GOP now will be able to claim a success if it holds its losses under 10 seats; Democrats will be disappointed if they do not gain at least 10.
The postmortems on President Bush are likely to rest heavily on House races, which are generally considered more susceptible to national trends. One key race to watch here is in the 13th District in Texas, where Democratic Rep. Bill Sarpalius has been facing a stiff challenge from Republican Dick Waterfield for whom Bush campaigned personally.