WASHINGTON -- It is always risky to read very much into the results of scattered off-year elections. But there was a warning -- sign for the Republicans in the returns from Kentucky and Virginia this week.
The election of Democrat Paul Patton as governor of Kentucky was hardly a landslide. He defeated Republican Larry Forgy with only 51 percent of the vote. But the most intriguing factor was the strategy that apparently tipped the balance for Mr. Patton.
In the late stages of the campaign the Democrat focused on Republican plans to reduce spending on Medicare, on Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and on the more general proposition that the Republicans were trying to go too far too fast.
To anyone who has studied recent opinion polls, it should come as no surprise that this strategy had some sting. Surveys now show voters increasingly uneasy about Medicare and unhappy with Mr. Gingrich. But for politicians the verdict of real voters, even if only those in Kentucky, is more impressive than a hundred opinion polls.
Thus, the result in Kentucky may contribute to caution among Republicans in Congress who have been behaving as if they had carte blanche for ideological extremism and radical change growing out of their success in 1994.
In Virginia, Republicans led by Gov. George Allen fell short in their effort to take control of the state legislature by, in effect, trying to nationalize the campaign and make it a state-level version of the campaign that the Republicans used in winning control of the House of Representatives last year.
In fact, the Republican strategy was disingenuous from the outset. Most of the time voters don't base their decisions on two-step rationales -- that is, decide to vote for someone because they see that vote as an implementation of a broader purpose. Nonetheless, Mr. Allen and the Virginia Republicans made such a point of depicting their campaign as just short of a holy crusade that they must live with the negative interpretations of the results, exaggerated or not.
For the Democrats, the results in the two states are a straw to be grasped at a time when the party has been badly demoralized not only by the 1994 results but also by the erratic course President Clinton seems to be following in positioning himself for the 1996 campaign.
A reason to hope
At the least, the returns may encourage some Democrats in Congress to believe they have a better chance for survival next year than it might have been assumed last year. With so many veterans in both houses already running for retirement, the party needs a rationale to persuade those on the fence they aren't necessarily doomed to be part of a permanent minority.
There are, however, sharp limits on how much encouragement the Democrats can draw from the returns. The failure to unseat Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice of Mississippi, an extreme conservative, proved once again how difficult it is for Democrats perceived as even moderately liberal -- as was the case with Secretary of State Dick Molpus -- to attract white votes in the South.
The comfortable victory won by Mr. Fordice -- 56 percent to 44 percent of the vote for Mr. Molpus -- was a disappointment for the Democrats who had been encouraged by what appeared to be gains late in the campaign. But the hard truth in Mississippi -- as in most of the Cotton South -- is that capturing even a third of the white vote is tough in states with large black populations with which their party is identified.
Nor was there any reason to believe Southern voters are any more inclined to support President Clinton than they appeared to be in the 1994 elections. Polls in both Kentucky and Mississippi showed the Democrats with overwhelming support from black voters and a clear edge among women but trailing among white males.
In 1992 Mr. Clinton carried the electoral votes of Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana as well as those of Arkansas. But the betting now is that he will be competitive next year only in Arkansas and perhaps in Tennessee, home state of Vice President Al Gore.
The core of the problem for the Democrats looking ahead to 1996 is that they have no coherent message other than their warnings about the pernicious effects of the reforms the Republicans are promulgating. As the Kentucky returns demonstrated, that can be an effective strategy at the margins.
But presidential elections are always about the future. And if the Democrats in Congress and the White House, divided as they are, have a vision, it isn't apparent to the naked eye.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.