WASHINGTON -- Fed up with scandal in Washington and the bloodshed in Iraq, voters swept congressional Republicans from power in yesterday's midterm elections, ending 12 years of Republican rule in the House of Representatives.
Democrats held out hope that they might take over both chambers, with too-close-to-call Senate contests in several states. Republicans, meantime, were optimistic that they could cling to control in the Senate, though with a severely diminished majority.
Democratic Senate candidates were leading in Montana, Missouri and Virginia, based on incomplete returns. But at least one of those contests - Virginia, where challenger James Webb led Sen. George Allen by 1,524 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast - is headed for a recount.
Democrats would need to win all three races to take over the Senate. If Republicans won one of the three, the Senate would be split 50-50, as it was after the 2000 election, and Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote would keep Republicans in control.
An electorate in the mood for change unseated at least three Republicans in the Senate and 23 Republicans in the House, with many close contests yet to be decided.
The results mean that the major parties will share power in the nation's capital - and possibly blame, if deadlock is the result - for the remainder of President Bush's term.
The Democratic takeover of the House could also foreshadow changes in the U.S. presence in Iraq. Bush has hinted that he is willing to consider a new course in Iraq, and the resurgent Democrats have said they will press him to set one.
Leading the list of Democrats headed back to Washington was Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a Baltimore-born liberal who is expected to become the first female House speaker in the nation's history.
"The American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction. And that is exactly what we intend to do," Pelosi told delirious Democrats at a post-midnight victory rally near the Capitol.
She called on Bush to set "a new direction in Iraq," adding that Democrats are prepared to govern "with the administration and the Republicans in Congress in partnership, not in partisanship."
Pelosi will preside over a House chamber with a narrow majority, even if Democrats win most of the tight contests that remained undecided early today.
In key House races, Democrats rode to victory on the appeal of centrist candidates. Their election could create strains with the party's liberal leadership and make it difficult for Democrats to push an aggressive agenda over the next two years.
The vote was a major setback for Bush, who spent the evening at the White House watching the returns. Midterm elections historically cost the president's party seats in a second term, and earlier predictions of huge Republican losses seemed unlikely to be borne out.
"The president is disappointed in the verdict in the House," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "We're not making any broad judgments" about the Senate.
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican, was unseated by Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey, a social conservative who opposes abortion rights. Other defeated Republicans included moderate Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, whose departure will deepen the conservative tilt of the Republican caucus.
More than a third of the electorate said it was voting to send a message of opposition to the president, according to Election Day interviews with more than 11,700 voters as they left the polls. That was 15 percent higher than the segment of voters who said they were voting in support of Bush.
Among voters who said they had backed Bush's 2004 re-election, one in six cast ballots for Democratic House candidates yesterday, the exit poll found.
Across the country, Bush's unpopularity proved too great a burden for many Republican candidates to overcome. Fifty-eight percent of the electorate held an unfavorable view of the way Bush is handling his job and voted for Democratic House candidates by a lopsided margin of better than 5-to-1, according to the exit poll.
The election results were also a repudiation of top Bush strategist Karl Rove's plan to make national security the focus of the campaign. The Election Day survey showed that terrorism was among the electorate's top concerns, but almost half of those who said that issue was very important to them - 45 percent - voted Democratic.
With the war and scandals driving the vote, Democrats succeeded in nationalizing the campaign, frustrating Republican efforts to make the midterms a series of local elections about local candidates and concerns. National issues mattered more than local ones, voters said by a margin of almost 2-to-1.
Corruption in Washington was the issue that the most voters said was extremely important to them, and 62 percent said they disapproved of the way Congress had done its job. Scandals involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit e-mails to teenage pages dragged Republicans to defeat in a number of key contests.
Among the seats that Republicans lost was the Florida district that Foley represented.
More than half of the electorate disapproved of the way the House Republican leadership handled the page scandal. Of those voters, three out of four backed Democratic candidates for the House.
There was also evidence of significant erosion in the Republican Party's support from evangelical Christians.
Predictions that religious conservatives would stay home in large numbers weren't borne out, according to exit poll data, which showed that white evangelicals made up almost exactly the same share of the midterm electorate, 23 percent, as in 2004, when born-again Christian voters were among those credited with providing Bush with his re-election victory.
But the Republican vote from white evangelicals fell to 70 percent yesterday, from the 78 percent share that Bush got two years ago.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, considered the early front-runner for the GOP's 2008 nomination, said in TV interviews that voters had concluded that the Republican Party has strayed from its conservative principles.
"Many of our voters have begun to believe that we value power over principle," McCain said on Fox News Channel.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner for '08, won re-election in New York to a second term. At a victory rally last night, with her husband, the former president, standing behind her and leading the cheers, she called the election results "a new beginning for our beloved country."
Opposition to the war in Iraq was pervasive, with 57 percent of voters telling exit pollsters that they disapproved of the war.
But in Connecticut, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, rejected by liberal Democratic primary voters because of his support for the war, found vindication as an independent, trouncing anti-war Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in a general election rematch. GOP and independent voters provided the margin of victory for Lieberman, who got only 30 percent of the Democratic vote, according to the exit poll, but who has said he will vote with Democrats to organize the Senate.
National economic gains, which Bush and the Republicans had promoted in recent weeks, did not seem to help the party's candidates. On a day the Dow Jones industrial average hit a new high, and with unemployment at a five-year low, a majority of those polled on Election Day gave the economy a negative rating; those voters went for Democratic House candidates by a margin of 4-to-1.
Democrats gained in contests for governor, which took place in 36 states, picking up governorships from the Republicans in at least six states besides Maryland. One of those, Massachusetts, made former Clinton administration Justice Department official Deval Patrick the state's first black governor.
Among the brightest spots for Republicans, the party held on to the governorships of three of the four most populous states - California, Texas and Florida. In California, one of the nation's most Democratic states, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, given up for dead politically only a year ago, was easily re-elected after undergoing an image makeover and cutting a series of popular deals with the Democratic legislature.
In New York, where Republican Gov. George E. Pataki is stepping down to run for president, a rising Democratic star, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, won easily.
Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.