WASHINGTON -- Based on the mixed bag of results in yesterday's off-year congressional elections, both the Democratic and Republican parties can look ahead with optimism to the presidential race of 2000, for different reasons.
The Democrats can breathe a bit more easily because the elections did not prove in any substantial way to be a referendum on whether President Clinton should be impeached.
Most voters surveyed in exit polls had instead cast their ballots essentially on their feelings toward the candidates and the candidates' stands on issues important to them.
The congressional elections failed to expose any new, stronger sentiment for impeachment that would have countered polling data showing that the country wants Congress to get on with the public's business.
That fact may encourage a swifter resolution of the impeachment process, which would be good news for the Democrats.
The Republicans can take heart in their continued hold on both houses of Congress, as well as their wide lead in governorships, which can be of substantial benefit to the eventual GOP presidential nominee in 2000.
Although the Republicans fell short of the traditional out-party gain of about 35 House seats in the off-year elections under a second-term president, they remain in a position to challenge the lame-duck Democratic incumbent in setting the national agenda for the two years leading up to the next presidential election.
The Republican opportunity, however, may be thwarted by the determination of the beleaguered Clinton to salvage some legislative legacy before leaving the White House.
Off-year elections often introduce potential presidential candidates or reinforce the claims of those already obvious. Yesterday's results were no exception.
Not surprisingly, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, easily won re-election and cemented his position at the head of the GOP pack in the early betting.
Three Republican governors re-elected yesterday also provided more fuel for speculation -- for the top of their party's ticket or for the vice-presidential nomination: Govs. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore, though he was not on the ballot in any state, campaigned tirelessly and outspokenly in support of Democratic candidates across the country. He countered his old reputation as a wooden stump speaker and enhanced his own position as the Democrats' front-runner for 2000.
Gore's aggressive accusations that the Republican congressional leadership, in league with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, was focused on driving Clinton from the White House assumed the burden of Clinton's defense, making it easier for Democrats to run on such appealing issues as protecting Social Security and improving public school education the states.
While the cloud of impeachment still hangs over Clinton, and therefore continues to inject an element of uncertainty into whether he and the Democrats in Congress will be able to position their party for retention of the White House in 2000, it is not likely to be as destructive to the party's future as it appeared earlier to be.
For one thing, with yesterday's election results having not produced any clearly perceived harsh verdict on Clinton, House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde has more incentive to strive for his promised objective to complete his committee's impeachment inquiry by the end of this year.
The odds remain strong, even if the House votes impeachment, that at least 34 Democratic senators will be mustered to vote against conviction, if the process gets that far. For that reason, some compromise, such as a censure of Clinton, continues to be the expectation on Capitol Hill.
In any event, unless the president is unexpectedly forced from the Oval Office before the next presidential election and Gore succeeds him, very competitive contests in both major parties for their nominations in 2000 are likely, with no paucity of 'N candidates on either side.
A big question about Gore's future continues to be whether he has been politically tainted in a serious way by the Clinton scandal or by allegations of questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
The former concerns a personal problem of Clinton's that isn't considered likely to rub off much on Gore. But the latter could yet hurt, with congressional and Justice Department investigations pending on the matter.
Pub Date: 11/04/98