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NEWS ANALYSIS : Two Parties Hear Different Voices in Election Wind : Vote: Republicans see GOP tide as a slam against Clinton. But Clinton says it was a further cry for change.


WASHINGTON — The voters have spoken, and what a roar it was. But what, exactly, did it mean?

Two conflicting theories already have emerged in the wake of the most sweeping midterm shake-up since the end of World War II. The first is the most straightforward: Bill Clinton was a fluke, this theory holds, an accidental Democratic President whose election in 1992 temporarily interrupted the maturing of the Republican majority that was born under Richard Nixon, reared under Ronald Reagan and only faltered under George Bush.

The second theory, clung to by White House aides and many other Democrats--but nonetheless more than just a drowning man's imaginary lifeboat--takes a more complex view of the country. It argues that the 1994 election, like that of 1992, was a reaction of voters against a status quo that has failed.

In 1992, proponents of this view argued, Bush became the symbol of that status quo and voters rejected him, turning to Clinton. When Clinton failed to deliver, they argued, the Democratic Congress became the symbol of the gridlock that voters despise, and the electorate vented its fury once more.

If the first theory holds, then nothing Clinton can do over the next two years will avail him much. The Republican tide will not stop at his command.

But if the second theory holds, what then? Can either party make significant progress in just two years against the daunting problems at the root of the nation's discontent--declining incomes for those who lack a college degree, economic uneasiness in the middle class, out-of-control crime rates in many cities and a social fabric pulled to the breaking point? And if neither party can meet those concerns, who will become the target of the voters' wrath next?

The "Clinton was a fluke" theory has the virtue of simplicity. And in the glow of victory, many Republican leaders rushed to embrace it. "Last night the American people endorsed what I believe in," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a likely GOP presidential candidate.

Clinton espoused the second view. Voters "were saying, 'Look, we just don't like what we see when we watch Washington, and you haven't done much about that,' " Clinton said at a press conference. "Democrats are in charge; we're holding you accountable."

Supporting that idea, the President's pollster, Stanley B. Greenberg, noted that in polls done immediately before the election, including The Times Poll, voters consistently said that they did not favor many parts of the GOP program. In addition, he noted, studies by the University of Michigan on the popularity of the two parties showed that during the last two years "the Democrats have plummeted, but the Republicans have also dropped. There was no movement toward the Republicans."

Some evidence that voters have not turned to the GOP out of ideology also comes from state-by-state votes on initiatives. Although Republican activists have campaigned heavily against gay rights, for example, the two states with anti-gay-rights initiatives on the ballot, Oregon and Nevada, defeated them. Voters in Wyoming defeated an anti-abortion referendum while electing Republicans to both the governorship and a Senate seat. Voters in several states defeated measures that would have limited future tax increases.

In Arizona, voters rejected an initiative that would have required the state to pay property owners if environmental regulations limited what they could do with their land--another issue heavily promoted by Republicans.

At least some Republican analysts agreed with parts of the Democratic assessment.

"The election was the public finally saying to the Democratic Party: 'You don't get it. We're rejecting you. We're giving the other party a chance,' " said conservative Republican strategist David Keene. "But all they're giving us is a chance."

Depending on which part of the country one examines, election returns and exit polls can support both theories. In the South--the 13 states running from Virginia to Texas--Republicans won the congressional vote by a 3-2 margin, compared with a 54-44 Democratic edge in the region two years ago. The South now is the largest Republican region, providing 28% of the 33 million votes cast for GOP congressional candidates nationwide.

What put the GOP over the top in the South was primarily a set of ideological concerns driving voters oriented toward social issues, according to exit polls analyzed by pollster Andrew Kohut.

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