WASHINGTON - A wartime president with sky-high popularity. A campaign cash advantage for Republican candidates. A failure by Democrats to articulate a clear alternative vision.
Those were some key factors behind the historic - and unexpected - Republican triumph in Tuesday's election, politicians in both parties said yesterday.
"You cannot ignore the fact that America did change on 9/11, over a year ago. And I think that did have an effect on this election," said Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will soon reclaim the title, and power, of Senate majority leader.
President Bush, by campaigning all-out in the final days of the campaign, "put his prestige on the line, and I believe it made a huge difference in the election," Lott added.
For the first time ever, Republicans gained House seats in the middle of a Republican president's term.
In an even more impressive - and unexpected - comeback, Republicans regained control of the Senate, which they had lost to the Democrats last year after Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords defected from the Republican Party. This time, they got some breathing room; instead of a 50-50 split, as they had before Jeffords bolted, they'll have at least a two-seat Senate edge.
An Election Day poll by one Republican survey firm concluded that Bush had "transformed this election." A strong pro-Bush tilt among late-deciding voters helped produce a Republican surge and a 6-point Republican advantage in House races, according to Public Opinion Strategies.
Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe tried to play down the results, attributing his party's House and Senate setbacks to the "political muscle that carried many Republicans over the finish line" and to "a wartime president with the highest sustained approval ratings in history."
Like other Democrats, McAuliffe said the two parties still are "basically [in] the same place we were after the 2000 election. At 50-50. Parity. Not much has changed."
In fact, though, the atmospherics in Washington were drastically altered by this week's vote. The mood swing was evident in the sudden contrast between the Republicans' elation and the downbeat tone of Democrats and their allies.
While Bush remained out of sight at the White House yesterday, perhaps to avoid being seen gloating in public, Democrats began taking aim at each other. Rumors swept Capitol Hill of a possible shakeup in both the House and Senate leadership.
Gephardt acknowledged that "obviously, we're all responsible" for what happened. The congressman from St. Louis is likely to announce his candidacy soon for the 2004 Democratic nomination.
Though he had been expected to hold on to his party leadership position, at least through the early phase of a presidential run, he is now going to relinquish that job instead.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, also expected to announce soon whether he'll be a presidential contender, is being downgraded to minority leader as a result of his party's loss of Senate control.
At AFL-CIO headquarters, a downcast President John Sweeney said the Democrats had failed to be "crystal clear about what they stand for" on issues of importance to workers - jobs, the economy and health care - and had not presented a clear alternative to the Republicans.
Democrats "were no match for the president's focus on Iraq," said Sweeney, whose unions spent $62 million, by their own estimate, helping mainly Democratic candidates.
The lesson of this week's results was that Democrats "have to have a strong economic message for 2004," said the labor federation chief.
Among campaign insiders, the biggest winner in Tuesday's voting, other than Bush, was his political strategist, Karl Rove. The White House aide decided where Bush would go to raise money and campaign for Republicans over the past year.
Rove was responsible "for encouraging the president to get as far out on the limb as he got," in risking political capital on the election, said Whit Ayres, a Republican campaign consultant.
Rove was instrumental in recruiting and providing financial and political support for Republican candidates in key states. In tight Senate races in Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri - the only states where Republicans won Democratic seats - he played a central role.
Presidents rarely intervene in primary election contests, but Rove arranged for Bush to endorse Rep. Saxby Chambliss - the Republican who eventually unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland - over another Republican before the primary.
Rove also directed $5 million to the Georgia campaign and brought Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials into the state repeatedly to make appearances on behalf of Chambliss, whose upset victory was the biggest Senate surprise. Republicans in Washington credited the Senate campaign with toppling the state's incumbent Democratic governor as well, the first time a Republican has been elected governor of Georgia in more than a century.
Bush's intense campaigning in the closing days before the election also made it hard for Democrats to gain the public's attention, Democrats said.
"He was consuming all the air," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, who chaired the Democrats' House campaign committee.
Republicans benefited as well from a surge in voter turnout, especially states with highly competitive races.
In Florida, which Democrats called their top target in the country, the Democratic vote for governor was up by 350,000 over four years ago. But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush increased his vote total by almost 600,000.
"It's pretty evident, both in nationalizing the campaign - using George Bush - and organizing at the grassroots level, the Republican Party beat the pants off the Democrats," said Curtis Gans, who runs the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
Gans said reliable figures on black turnout won't be available for months. But he predicted that studies would show that black turnout fell in many areas, because Democrats failed to offer a persuasive message for minority voters.
In Texas, the Democratic "dream ticket" of a black Senate nominee and a Hispanic nominee for governor failed to produce the windfall of minority votes that Democrats had forecast. Republicans won the governor's race by almost 20 percentage points and the Senate race by about 13 points.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, architect of the successful Republican House campaign, agreed with criticism of the Democrats' failure to take advantage of the public's concern over the economy, calling it a "blown opportunity."
He also said that Republicans beat the Democrats at their own game this year, by going back to basics in turning out voters at the grassroots level, going door-to-door and handing out campaign literature on street corners in the closing days before the election. Between 500 and 1,000 volunteers were deployed by the party in the 40 most closely contested House districts.
"We did a much better job than we've ever done in the past," said Davis, "and I think the results show."
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.