WASHINGTON -- Republican dreams of gaining majority party status before the end of the decade may have died in the first election of the 1990s. And Democrats may find the road back to the White House bumpier than previously expected.
Those were among the conclusions that emerged yesterday as leaders of both parties debated an election that produced only minor overall shifts in political power and a contradictory mix of voter messages.
Robert Teeter, a top White House political adviser, termed the 1990 balloting, with justification, a "pretty typical midterm election." Republicans argued a statistical case: the historical tendency for the party in the White House to lose seats at the halfway point of a president's term, as happened Tuesday.
But Democrats responded, with equal accuracy, that the GOP's plight going into Tuesday's election was scarcely typical. Already near a low-point in congressional seats, Republicans, by their own admission, needed to improve their numbers to have a decent chance of becoming a majority by the year 2000.
"It is a disaster for them," said Representative Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For the first time in 30 years, he said, the party in the White House has now lost seats in three consecutive congressional elections, completely wiping out its House gains during the decade of the 1980s.
Republican failure to make dramatic progress Tuesday at the state level, in advance of next year's reapportionment fights, and the unseating of a prominent party-switching Republican congressman in Florida, were expected to further depress GOP chances of erasing the Democrats' 100-seat House majority.
Even some Democrats acknowledged privately that it would be an exaggeration to view their modest gains as having any measurable impact on President Bush's chances for re-election two years from now. And yet, Mr. Bush was one of several major figures whose paths to 1992 may become steeper as a consequence of this week's election.
A top Republican leader, Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged the setback for the president in advance when he said last weekend that a loss of eight to 10 House seats would make it "very, very difficult" for Mr. Bush to sustain vetoes in Congress and "move forward" with his agenda during the final two years of his term. Democrats recorded a net gain of nine seats Tuesday.
"I think George Bush is extremely vulnerable in 1992," gloated Ronald H. Brown, the national Democratic chairman. Referring to the losses suffered by two-thirds of the Republicans that Mr. Bush stumped for in recent weeks, the Democratic chairman unveiled, with a note of sarcasm, his "secret" victory plan for regaining the White House: getting Mr. Bush to campaign in all 50 states next time.
But Democrats had a worry of their own: the surprisingly poor performance this election by two leading presidential prospects. New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, facing minimal opposition, got only 52 percent in winning re-election, while next door in New York, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo did only 1 percentage point better.
"You ought to be darned glad that Cuomo and Bradley weren't on the ballot against George Bush. They might not have carried their own states," jabbed Charles Black, the GOP's chief spokesman, in one of his numerous joint appearances yesterday with the Democratic chairman.
Mr. Cuomo's sharp drop in popularity, in particular, could have a considerable effect on the presidential race, which Mr. Brown says has already begun. Along with the growing sense among Democrats that Mr. Bush is beatable, Mr. Cuomo's apparent vulnerability may have all but ended the notion that the party would escape another potentially damaging nomination contest.
Previously considered a prohibitive favorite by some, the New Yorker now could face a strong challenge within the party if he runs. Opposition could come from the party's moderate-to-conservative wing, whose possible candidates include Sens. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, or one of several senators who just scored easy re-election victories, including Al Gore, D-Tenn., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
Among Republicans, Sen. Pete Wilson's victory in the California governor's election, while very narrow, may lift him to stardom in the party's moderate wing. Virtually unseen in Washington or most of the nation, his post-midnight remarks to supporters in San Diego yesterday had a highly inclusive tone, as he spoke movingly of creating greater opportunities for women, minorities and disabled people.
Amid continued debate over the impact that abortion, taxes and the budget battle had on the results, the emergence of the racially charged job quota issue, wielded with devastating effect by North Carolina's Sen. Jesse Helms in his successful re-election battle, may well have been the most enduring political legacy of the 1990 campaign.
For with the re-election rate for incumbents only marginally lower than in the past, anti-incumbent fever turned out to be more like a bad cold than the flu for politicians. The message from the voters, at least on the national level, seemed to be: We're mad as hell . . . but we'll take it a little longer.