WASHINGTON -- Here's how to watch the election returns tonight.
Although there are many important gubernatorial elections, the most significant question for the long term nationally is whether the Republicans can gain the seven seats they need to control the Senate, the 40 to control the House of Representatives or both.
Unless the final margins are paper-thin, there are several Senate and House races that could provide clues relatively early in the evening about voting trends in the rest of the nation. Here are key races, mostly in the Eastern time zone, from which results will be known earliest:
* Pennsylvania. If the Democratic incumbent, Harris Wofford, survives the challenge from Rep. Rick Santorum, the chances of a Republican takeover will decline markedly because this is a seat the Republicans have been counting on. The unknown factor is how much Mr. Santorum has suffered from his musing aloud about raising the retirement age at which beneficiaries become eligible for Social Security.
* Virginia. This is another seat that Republicans have been counting on winning -- along with the open seats in Arizona, Ohio, Maine, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- to produce their net gain of seven. But late polls show that the Democratic incumbent, Charles S. Robb, might hold off his Republican challenger, Oliver L. North.
* Michigan. The Republican candidate here, Spencer Abraham, has been favored all along to give his party another gain in an open seat. But Rep. Bob Carr, a Democrat, has made it close enough to raise some late doubts about the outcome.
* Vermont. What the Democrats need most urgently is the takeover of a Republican seat that would force the Republicans to win eight to net seven; Vermont is one of two or three possibilities. Sen. James M. Jeffords has been a heavy favorite, but his Democratic challenger, Jan Backus, has closed to within striking distance in some opinion polls. And small states like this one are notorious for providing surprises election night.
* Tennessee. The returns here should offer the single best indicator of the odds on Republicans taking control of the Senate. Fred Thompson, a Republican, is a clear favorite to win the seat formerly occupied by Vice President Al Gore by defeating Rep. Jim Cooper. The key is whether the Democratic incumbent, Jim Sasser, can withstand the challenge of Bill Frist, a surgeon and Republican political neophyte. If Republicans win both seats here, they would probably be assured of control.
If the question of control remains unsettled until the results start coming in from the Pacific time zone, the contest to watch is in Washington state, between the Republican incumbent, Slade Gorton, and his Democratic challenger, Ron Sims, the only black candidate for the Senate who is seen as having any realistic chance this year. This could be a make-or-break race for both parties late in the evening.
* North Carolina. The Republicans' prospects for huge gains in the House depend on their ability to win open seats vacated by Democrats or seats held narrowly by Democrats where Republicans have been winning in presidential elections. Those would include three in this state -- open seats in the 2nd and 5th Districts and the seat of Rep. H. Martin Lancaster in the 3rd. Republicans are leading in the Fifth District, with Richard Burr, and hold narrow edges in the other two. If they win all three, they would probably be on the way to a total gain of more than 30 seats; if they win only one, their net gain may be more modest.
* Georgia. The situation is similar here. The seats targeted by the Republicans are those of George "Buddy" Darden in the 7th and Don Johnson in the 10th, plus an open seat in the 8th. The Republicans must pick up at least two of these three to be in a position to compete for control.
* New Hampshire. If the Republican tide is running strong, Rep. Dick Swett, a Democrat, may be vulnerable to a challenge from Charles Bass.
* Michigan. The results here should provide some measure of the Republican success in targeting established incumbents. The embattled Democrats to watch are Reps. Dale E. Kildee in the 9th and Sander M. Levin in the 12th District. If both survive, the Republicans probably won't hit their magic number of 40.
* Pennsylvania. The 13th District will be the focus of much attention because the Democratic incumbent, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, is the one who switched her vote at the last minute to provide President Clinton with success on his budget bill last year. Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky was considered bbTC sitting duck early in the campaign but has raised $1.4 million and is now running only slightly behind Jon Fox, a Republican. A Democratic victory here might be a signal that incumbents who have established strong personal identities may withstand the tide.
* Pennsylvania. The Republican goal is to elect governors in as many major states as possible in the hope of creating a favorable context for their presidential candidate in 1996. This is one of the close gubernatorial elections, with a slight edge for Republican Rep. Tom Ridge over Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, a Democrat.
* Georgia. This is one of several states that will be watched for evidence of rising Republican strength in the South. Going into the final hours, Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, holds a shaky lead over Guy Milner in one of the few Southern states Mr. Clinton carried two years ago.
* Maryland. The result here will be watched for clues to the breadth of the move toward the Republicans, if only because no Republican has been seriously competitive for years, as Ellen R. Sauerbrey appears to be against Democratic nominee Parris N. Glendening.
* Florida. This state has been moving toward the Republicans for a decade, so the question is whether Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., a Democrat, can turn back the tide for another four years against Jeb Bush, one of two sons of former President George Bush running for governorships.
* Texas. The trend is almost identical here, with Gov. Ann W. Richards trying to keep the governorship from George W. Bush. (The outcome of this race, in the central time zone, will be available later).
* California. This one is important for two reasons -- because California has one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to elect a president and because Gov. Pete Wilson will become an automatic contender for the Republican nomination in 1996 if he is re-elected, despite his insistence that he doesn't intend to run for president. (The outcome in California, in the Pacific time zone, will be available later.)
ELECTION '94 COVERAGE
All three major television networks and their local affiliates, as well as several cable operations, have extensive coverage planned for tonight. Here's a guide to what's available, along with suggestions for those who would rather get their information elsewhere.
WMAR, Channel 2: Baltimore's NBC affiliate, soon to become Baltimore's ABC affiliate, will ignore the network's coverage.
* 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Three-minute synopses on the hour, with results occasionally scrolled along the bottom of the television screen.
* 10 p.m. until at least 11:30 p.m.: Continual coverage of national and local races with anchors Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden; analysis and commentary by Sun columnist Roger Simon.
WBAL, Channel 11: Baltimore's WBAL will pre-empt Donahue in favor of a one-hour newscast beginning at 5 p.m.
* 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Five-minute CBS News report at 8 p.m. followed by breaks in the network's prime-time lineup when necessary.
* 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.: National election night reports with periodic break-ins for local results.
* Starting at 11 p.m.: Carol Costello and Rod Daniels will anchor local results and select national races, with analysis from former Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson.
WJZ, Channel 13: WJZ will have ABC's prime-time programming from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on tape and, whenever it breaks-in for local updates from anchors Denise Koch and Al Sanders, will rejoin the network shows where they left off.
* 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.: ABC news programming of national contests, with local updates from WJZ.
* Starting at 11 p.m.: Local coverage continues until the governor's race between Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey has been decided. WBFF, Channel 45: The Fox network has no election night coverage planned; however, its local affiliate plans to offer this programming.
* 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.: WBFF anchors Jeff Barnd and Lisa Willis will give short updates of local and national results during Fox's prime-time programming.
* Starting at 10 p.m.: Local and national coverage with reporter Jeff Salkind offering analysis and commentary.
CNN: The all-news network will devote more than eight hours to election coverage.
* 6 p.m.: One-hour "Election Preview."
* 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.: National election coverage.
* 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.: National election coverage.
* 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.: National election coverage.
* Midnight to 2 a.m.: National election coverage.
* 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.: Election night recap.
* 3 a.m. to 3:45 a.m.: Election update.
* 5 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.: "Election Night Sights and Sounds."
C-Span: The network known for gavel-to-gavel congressional coverage will broadcast election results continuously from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Guests include Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine and former presidential candidate Ross Perot. The network also will broadcast snippets of local TV coverage from nine cities across the United States -- including Washington but not Baltimore.
Comedy Central: The all-comedy network will offer an hour of election night analysis and "stupid solutions to this year's campaign issues" at 10 p.m. Guests on the special, live edition of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" will include talk show host Maury Povich, actress Ally Sheedy, actor Dabney Coleman and former Reagan campaign manager and Republican strategist John Sears.
* WCBM-AM: Ken Maylath and guest Harry Shriver will discuss politics on "Conference Call" from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., followed by four hours of continuous election coverage anchored by Mr. Maylath and Tom Marr.
* WBAL-AM: Anchors Ron Smith and Frank DeFilippo will offer analysis and commentary from 8 p.m. until at least midnight, with election updates from John Patti.
CYBERSPACE: CompuServe subscribers can participate for free in U.S. News Online's "Election '94: The Cybercast." Political analysts from U.S. News and World Report, as well as politicians and other analysts, will answer questions posted via computer from 8 p.m. to midnight.