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Parties grapple for power advantage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Republicans appeared all but certain to retain their majority in the House of Representatives and were within reach of taking the Senate back from the Democrats, based on incomplete returns from yesterday's election.

It was a strong showing for President Bush and the Republicans, though neither party scored large gains in either house of Congress - reflecting a nation that remains split almost evenly down party lines.

With Republicans needing only one more seat to gain control of the Senate, that contest was turning into an old-fashioned cliffhanger.

Adding to the suspense: a breakdown of the computerized system that TV networks and newspapers have come to rely on to help project winners and losers. That failure put greater reliance on actual vote counts, left analysts in the dark about voters' intentions and slowed the ability of news organizations to determine the outcome of key contests around the country.

On a night when Republicans won the Maryland governorship for the first time since the 1960s, Republicans were closely watching returns from tight Senate contests in the Midwest that might give them a major boost in the fight for Congress as well.

A White House-led push produced a stunning GOP victory in Georgia, where Rep. Saxby Chambliss unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland. Republican Sonny Perdue, a former state senator, registered the day's biggest upset, defeating Gov. Roy Barnes to become the first Republican elected governor of the Peach State in more than a century.

Democrats, encouraged by the defeat of Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who lost to Mark Pryor, son of a former senator, still had hopes of retaining their razor-thin edge in the Senate and keeping control of Congress split between the parties.

But their only hope was for a Democratic sweep of three tight Senate contests - in Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota. Then the battle for control would rest on the outcome of an election runoff on Dec. 7 in Louisiana, when Sen. Mary L. Landrieu will try to retain her seat.

Bush, who put his prestige on the line with a frenetic campaign that took him to 35 states, watched the returns at the White House with Republican congressional leaders and party strategists, whose elation grew as the evening progressed.

Bush's popularity, higher than that of any of his recent predecessors at this point in their terms, insulated his party's candidates from the political effect of a sluggish economy and had Republicans within shooting distance of a historic achievement: gaining House seats in a midterm election.

Brother's victory

In an important triumph for the presidential family, Bush's younger brother Jeb was re-elected by a wide margin as governor of Florida over Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe had called Jeb Bush's defeat the top priority for Democrats in the 2002 campaign, and the president made a dozen campaign visits to Florida to make sure that wouldn't happen.

At a victory celebration in Miami, Bush embraced his father, the former president, then thanked "our great president of the United States for coming down and lending a hand to his little brother."

Bush also phoned former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to congratulate her on her election to Congress from a district on the state's southwest Gulf Coast. Harris played a central role in that state's contentious vote-counting drama that resulted in a 537-vote victory for George w. Bush and won him the presidency.

Besides Georgia, other key victories for Republicans included North Carolina, where Elizabeth Dole, the former Cabinet secretary and wife of former Sen. Bob Dole, defeated former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Republicans also held Senate seats being vacated by retiring or defeated incumbents in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee.

Governorships

Democrats gained several big-state governorships. Ed Rendell became the first former Philadelphia mayor in nearly 90 years to win a contest for Pennsylvania governor, an office held by Republicans the past eight years.

In Illinois, Rep. Rod Blagojevich, a congressman from the north side of Chicago, became the first Democrat to win the governorship since 1972. In Michigan, Jennifer Granholm became the first woman elected governor of that industrial state, and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico.

Republicans, meantime, won in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry, who ascended to the office after Bush resigned to become president, was elected on his own for the first time. He defeated oilman and banker Tony Sanchez, who put as much as $70 million of his own money into the race, possibly setting a spending record for a losing candidate.

In other governors' contests, Republicans picked up New Hampshire and South Carolina from the Democrats, as well as Maryland. In Massachusetts, former U.S. Olympic Committee executive Mitt Romney won the race for governor, his first elective office.

The nation's top Democratic officeholder, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, was closely watching his state's tossup Senate contest. It had the potential to determine which party will control the Senate and whether Daschle would remain as majority leader.

Daschle describe his party's failure to take Senate seats away from the Republicans in North Carolina and New Hampshire as setbacks. But he refused to concede that Democrats might lose the Senate, calling it a "hypothetical" with a number of key Senate contests still too close to call.

Daschle said he did not think the American people wanted to give the Republicans "carte blanche" to control both Congress and the White House, as they did at the start of Bush's term in 2001.

That "is not something the American people want in a 50-50 country," Daschle said on ABC. "If the House is going to be Republican, I think the Senate ought to be Democratic."

One of the first results that cheered Democrats was former Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's victory in the race for the New Jersey Senate seat being vacated by scandal-damaged incumbent Robert G. Torricelli. The unusual substitution of the retired 78-year-old veteran, late in the campaign, frustrated Republicans, who had been counting on millionaire Doug Forrester to pick up the seat.

Doubtful races

Late poll closings in House races in the western United States made it difficult to know immediately what the party lineup of the next House would look like and whether Republicans actually gained seats.

A breakdown in the election-day polling operation prevented news organizations from knowing who voted for which candidates and why - trend information that usually is available by early evening on Election Day.

Florida officials, meantime, reported none of the major problems that made the state's election system a national joke in recent elections and led the state legislature to provide $32 million for modernization. An additional $3.8 billion in federal aid has also been authorized to help improve the election machinery in all 50 states, though none of that money has actually been provided yet.

Heading into yesterday's balloting, the Congress was more closely divided than at any time in almost a half-century. But Republicans were hoping to make history by picking up seats in the House. Only twice before since the Civil War has the party in power in the White House been able to do that.

The first time was in 1934, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. The second was four years ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Republicans, however, have never gained seats in the midterm elections at a time when they held the White House.

Republicans were also trying to extend their hold on the House for a full decade. They took over in their landslide victory of 1994, picking up 52 House seats and ending 40 years of Democratic rule.

The last time Republicans held the House for a longer period than the present was in 1919 to 1931.

Uncontested races

Continuing a trend that favors the re-election of incumbents, only about one in 10 congressional seats was being seriously contested yesterday. Most members of Congress had little or no serious opposition, in part because the just-completed round of redistricting strengthened most incumbents. More than 90 percent of House members seeking re-election were all but guaranteed a victory, and the success rate might well approach the 98 percent

Though his name wasn't on the ballot, Bush also tried to lend his popularity to his party. Polls continue to show strong approval of the president, whose job rating is still running roughly 10 points higher than it was prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year.

Presidential effort

In what some have called the most extensive midterm effort ever by a sitting president, Bush campaigned extensively this year, promoting Republicans running for Congress, governor and even some state legislative contests. He also raised a record $200 million-plus over the past two years for his party and its candidates.

Bush's most extensive efforts were reserved for his home state of Texas, where the governorship and a Senate seat were at stake, and Florida. He has made a dozen trips to the Sunshine State, scene of the decisive contest of the 2000 presidential election, in an effort to boost the re-election chances of his brother.

In addition, White House political strategists took an unusually active role in key Senate contests, recruiting candidates in several states. In some cases, Bush abandoned the traditional policy of staying out of contested party primaries.

In Georgia, for example, the White House got behind Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss during primary season and the national party provided extensive support, both financial and in multiple visits by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration figures.

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