A demand for change Elections set stage for '92

November 07, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Beset by economic fears and fed up with politics-as-usual, voters made a strong demand for change in Tuesday's elections around the country.

The results set the stage for a contentious 1992 presidential campaign, one that now appears brighter for the Democrats than was the case just a few months ago.

The elections delivered a stern warning to both political parties that Americans have had it with the stalemate in Washington.

"This is not a time for incumbents to rest on their laurels," said Representative Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Former Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh's miserable showing in the Pennsylvania Senate race sent a shudder through Republican ranks. President Bush, who campaigned hard for Mr. Thornburgh, conceded yesterday that he was "depressed" over the outcome.

Political analysts and party officials offered a sometimes baffling array of explanations for the seemingly contradictory returns, which suggested that voters want the benefits of incumbency but not the incumbents.

Americans expressed their disenchantment by throwing out officeholders in cities and states across the nation. Yet at the same time, the national movement to limit the terms of members of Congress suffered its first serious setback when Washington voters rejected a measure that would have forced the state's congressional delegation to retire by 1994.

The morning after the election found Mr. Bush holding an unusual sunrise news conference in which he promised to "go the extra mile" and "try even harder" to address domestic concerns, then immediately left town again for Europe. Before departing, Mr. Bush denied that his abrupt decision to scrap a planned trip to Asia later this month was a sign of panic at the White House.

In perhaps the most remarkable role reversal of the day, Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown crowed that the elections had revealed the power of the Democrats' newest hot-button issue: tax cuts for middle-income Americans, the same issue that carried Ronald Reagan and George Bush to power in the 1980s.

A few minutes later, his counterpart, Republican National Chairman Clayton K. Yeutter, committed what must have seemed like heresy to conservative Republicans. The former Bush Cabinet member strongly criticized the idea of jump-starting the economy with a broad-based tax cut, terming it "demagogic" and saying that it would "do more harm than good."

With many Americans feeling the threat of renewed recession, winning candidates used populist, anti-politician themes to lure middle-income voters and unseat incumbents in contests for governor, mayor and state legislature.

In Tuesday's two top races, this approach was used by candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum: liberal Democrat Harris Wofford, who went from appointed senator to senator-elect in Pennsylvania, and conservative Kirk Fordice, a businessman who became Mississippi's first Republican governor in a century.

Both men campaigned as outsiders, even though Mr. Wofford had been serving as an appointed senator following the death last spring of Republican Sen. John Heinz.

Mr. Wofford's agenda -- tax relief for the middle class, national health care and protection of American jobs -- provides a blueprint for a 1992 campaign against Mr. Bush, Democratic officials said yesterday. Several of the party's leading presidential contenders, including Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, have already begun stressing these themes in their campaigns.

"Democrats are providing concrete ideas to get America out of this economic mess. Republicans are touting an empty economic strategy," said Mr. Brown, the Democratic national chairman. "It didn't work for Dick Thornburgh. It won't work for George Bush in 1992."

He predicted that next year's Democratic presidential nominee would heed the strategic lessons of the Pennsylvania race, in which Mr. Wofford, the underdog, went on the offensive early and never let up, employing negative campaign tactics to tie Mr. Thornburgh to "the mess in Washington."

For the second year in a row, state governors were the most prominent victims of voter dissatisfaction. Incumbent Gov. Ray Mabus, the Harvard-educated boy wonder of Mississippi politics and the only governor seeking re-election this year, was undone by his failure to produce on promised reforms in education.

In two other states, economic hard times led to Republican gains and rebukes to sitting Democratic governors. In New Jersey, voters vented their displeasure with Gov. James J. Florio by overturning Democratic control of both houses of the legislature; in Virginia, record Republican gains in legislative races were viewed by politicians in both parties as a defeat for Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democratic presidential candidate.

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