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GOP gains weren't the only oddities of campaign


WASHINGTON -- Looking at the midterm elections, the Republican takeover of the Senate and increased majority in the House were only two of the surprising events of a bizarre campaign season.

In becoming the first first-term president in 68 years to gain seats in both houses of Congress in the off-year elections (since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934), George W. Bush stumped furiously even as he pursued one war and planned another.

He raised unprecedented millions for GOP congressional candidates and took Air Force One to every corner of the country and several times to certain states with close races. In freely spending the political capital his war leadership had brought him, he was like John D. Rockefeller passing out dimes to street urchins.

The results vindicated the strategy of Mr. Bush's political mastermind, Karl Rove, in putting his boss on the road. He ignored Democratic whining that the president was using taxpayer money -- as Democratic presidents also do -- by throwing in "official business" here and there to justify billing Uncle Sam for the lion's share of his political junketing.

Meanwhile, the Democrats were tongue-tied in trying to take advantage of a stalled economy, a sliding stock market and increasing unemployment. Seldom, surprisingly, did they dust off and revise for the midterms the famous line that helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Walter Mondale, 74, in his brief Senate race against 53-year-old Norm Coleman in Minnesota, resurrected his own version of another potent Reagan quip. A shaky first debate performance against Mr. Mondale in 1984 had triggered rumors that Mr. Reagan was losing it. So he told Mr. Mondale in the next debate: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign; I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." But his time around, Mr. Mondale's version against Mr. Coleman didn't save him.

Mr. Bush's visits to Minnesota on behalf of Mr. Coleman no doubt generated Republican enthusiasm. But the veteran authors of the prominent Politics in Minnesota newsletter attribute Mr. Coleman's victory just as much to that amazing exercise of political hara-kiri when the Democrats turned the Paul Wellstone memorial service into a pep rally for Mr. Mondale.

When an obscure Wellstone campaign official and close friend bombastically called on the assembled 20,000 liberals to "win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone" and the crowd whooped it up, the newsletter reported, angry Republicans, believing the politicking had been planned, went berserk.

"Republican phones rang off the hooks with more than $250,000 in unsolicited money, and almost more volunteers than the campaign knew what to do with," the newsletter reported before the voting. Mr. Wellstone's campaign manager denied any plan to turn the service into a rally and apologized for what had happened. Mr. Coleman might have won without this fiasco, but in such a close result you had to consider whether it had done in Mr. Mondale.

Then there was the spectacle of the ethically disadvantaged Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey falling on his sword in his fight for re-election just in time for the Democrats to bring in a ringer, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who saved the seat.

At 78, Mr. Lautenberg also could have used the old Reagan line about age against a younger Republican opponent, Douglas Forrester, but he didn't have to. Years earlier, Mr. Forrester had written a pile of politically damaging weekly newspaper columns about which his wife obligingly told a newspaper reporter, who then ferreted them out for public perusal.

Finally, there was Republican Senate nominee Saxby Chambliss in Georgia running a television ad accusing Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War triple amputee, of a lack of patriotism -- and winning.

It was quite an election. But at least the Supreme Court didn't have to step in.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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