Democrats see some light Wins in Texas, Fla. lend hope for '92 showdown ACROSS THE NATION

November 07, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

The Democrats have risen from the political ashes to set the stage for an aggressive run at the White House two years from now.

Although they realized only nominal gains in Congress -- one seat in the Senate and 10 in the House of Representatives, with several still to be decided -- the successes of Democrats in two of the megastates of the Sun Belt -- Florida and Texas -- were both a personal embarrassment and political warning for President Bush.

But GOP Sen. Pete Wilson won the biggest prize of all, the governorship of California, after a multimillion-dollar battle with Democrat Dianne Feinstein, taking 48 percent of the total to Feinstein's 47 percent.

Democratic ebullience was muted by the defeat in North Carolina of Harvey Gantt, who had sought to become the first black Democrat ever elected to the Senate, at the hands of the bete noir of liberals, Sen. Jesse A. Helms.

But that disappointment was offset by the election of Lawton Chiles as governor of Florida and Ann Richards as governor of Texas. Those triumphs were a particularly stinging blow to the White House because President Bush had invested so much of his political capital in the two states -- three visits for Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida and the final three days of the campaign working in behalf of Clayton Williams, the rough-edged rancher-oilman-entrepreneur who lost in Bush's home state.

In fact, it was doubtful that either election had much to do with the voters' view of Bush. Martinez had entered his campaign for a second term as a decided underdog with extremely high negatives after a highly controversial four years as only the second Republican governor in Florida's history. And Williams had frittered away a huge lead over Richards with a series of personal gaffes that undermined his credibility as a serious potential governor.

But Texas, Florida and California had been seen all along by both parties as the prime battlegrounds of the 1990 campaign, so the Democratic success was certain to be viewed as larger than its true dimensions.

The Democrats also captured Republican-held governors' chairs in Rhode Island, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico while Republicans took previously Democratic governorships in Ohio, Massachusetts and Vermont. Another governorship held by the Democrats, in Connecticut, went to an independent, former Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker.

Two other governorships remained in doubt -- one held by a Republican in Nebraska, the other by a Democrat in Arizona. But in Michigan and Minnesota, Republicans defeated Democratic incumbents. Rep. John Engler of Michigan squeaked by Democratic Gov. James Blanhard, and Ann Carlson defeated Democrat Rudy Perpich.

The Democratic optimism may have been muted somewhat by the tarnish on two of the party's brightest stars -- Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Cuomo won easily but managed only 53 percent of the vote to 21 percent each for Republican Pierre Rinfret and Conservative Party nominee Herbert London -- a marked decline from the 65 percent Cuomo polled four years ago. Bradley, on the defensive because of an inflammatory tax plan promulgated by Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, won only 52 percent to 48 percent over Republican Christina Whitman, who had been considered no more than token opposition.

But the results raised enough questions about both Bush's political skills and his grip on the electorate to encourage Democrats to believe he will be far more vulnerable in 1992 than he appeared when he was enjoying 75 percent approval ratings only two months ago.

And they are certain to raise alarms within a Republican Party already divided by Bush's handling of the tax issue and dismayed by his seeming uncertainty as a campaigner.

The messages sent by the electorate were -- as is so often the case in midterm elections -- strikingly uneven and often contradictory.

The defeat of Republican Gov. Mike Hayden of Kansas and the reaction against Bradley seemed to be signs of strong hostility to taxes. But the leader of the anti-tax forces among House Republicans, Rep. Newt Gingrich, was barely re-elected in his Georgia district.

There was evidence of anti-incumbent feeling in a few elections -- in Minnesota, for example. But the candidate who seemed to be the quintessential rebel against politics as usual, acid-tongued Democrat John Silber, lost the governorship of Massachusetts to a Republican former prosecutor, William Weld.

Support for abortion rights seemed to be a key factor in Ann Richards' dramatic come-from-behind success in Texas; exit polls showed her receiving 60 percent of the votes of women. But the congressman who had been the first priority target of the abortion rights groups, Rep. Craig James of Florida, survived.

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