WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the 1994 election, Republicans seem poised to seize control of one or both houses of Congress and make major gains in state races across the country, according to a final flurry of public opinion polls.
Two new national surveys, released yesterday, found a flood of popular support for Republicans, potentially enough to sweep away the Democratic majority in Congress and give Republicans a majority of both houses for the first time in more than 40 years.
But at least one of those polls also detected a slight ebbing in the Republican tide as tomorrow's election approaches, another warning to political professionals that the outcome remains very much in doubt.
"We're going to have a landslide in this election," a confident Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee, predicted yesterday. He forecast a GOP pickup of between 7 and 12 seats, more than enough for a Senate takeover.
Democratic officials responded by citing state-by-state polls that indicate that an unusually large number of contests could still go either way -- and that Democrats could wind up dodging a political disaster.
"I think we are going to do much better than the experts think," President Clinton said last night on CNN. "I think we're going to see the Democrats keep control of the Senate and the House."
Echoing a refrain of nervous Democrats everywhere, Vice President Al Gore said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that, as in 1948, when Harry Truman defied the experts to win re-election, the pollsters would again be proven wrong this year.
Certainly most polls, including two nationwide surveys released last night, continue to point toward a huge Republican victory tomorrow.
Among likely voters, Republicans hold a 48 percent to 43 percent advantage when Americans are asked which party they favor in their local congressional district, according to a Times Mirror poll released last night.
A second survey, released last night by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, gave Republicans a 40 percent to 37 percent edge.
Not since the early 1950s have Republicans found such favor with U.S. voters in congressional election polls. But while Republicans appear to have enough popular support to take over the House, they don't have enough to guarantee it, according to Andrew Kohut, who directs the poll for Times Mirror, which publishes The Sun and other newspapers.
The Times Mirror poll, conducted last Thursday through Saturday, showed that late-deciding voters appear to be breaking in favor of the Democrats. Among those edging away from Republicans in the closing days of the campaign are voters over age 65, suburbanites with family incomes over $50,000 and Catholics. The survey also found a slight increase in those who said that they would vote to re-elect their incumbent representative, another positive sign for Democrats.
White evangelical Christians, who have been mobilized to play a major role in the Republican Party, were the only group to increase its support for Republican candidates over the past two weeks, according to Times Mirror.
The trend toward tightening races could be spotted in many states, including Maryland, where Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has pulled into a virtual tie with Parris N. Glendening, according to a Sun poll published yesterday.
In Florida, incumbent Democratic Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. has edged ahead of challenger Jeb Bush in recent days, polls there have shown.
In the Virginia Senate race, a new poll published yesterday by the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed Democrat Charles S. Robb leading Republican challenger Oliver L. North by 8 percentage points, with 16 percent undecided. Other recent polls have also shown Mr. Robb gaining but have indicated that the race is a dead heat.
In Texas, challenger George W. Bush, eldest son of the former president, is leading Gov. Ann W. Richards by a statistically insignificant margin, 46 percent to 44 percent, according to a statewide poll published yesterday.
The Houston Chronicle-Dallas Morning News survey indicated that Ross Perot's endorsement has helped Ms. Richards close the gap.
In New York, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's lead over Republican challenger George Pataki has shrunk to 6 or 7 percentage points, according to two polls released over the weekend.
Governorships up for grabs
More than a dozen governor's races could still go either way, including those in states where Democrats currently hold the governorship: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, New York, Rhode Island, Georgia, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho and New Mexico.
Republicans, who haven't held a majority of the governor's chairs since 1970, have been predicted to pick up at least 5 governorships, which would give them 25 in all.
The Democrats' best chances to pick up Republican-held governorships are in the toss-up races in Iowa, Arizona, Maine and Alaska, while Republicans are favored to win the Democratic-held governorship of Kansas. Democratic governors are expected to cruise to re-election in Vermont, Nebraska, Nevada and Colorado, analysts say, while incumbent Republicans appear safe in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In the biggest state of all, California, Gov. Pete Wilson has maintained a small but steady lead over Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown in recent weeks.