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Clinton Rolls to Solid Victory : Dole Concedes Before Polls Close in the West

Elections: President jumped to a strong early lead in the East and Midwest. GOP nominee's aides say the concession statement was released prematurely.

November 06, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton won a convincing reelection victory Tuesday, capping a singular political comeback that promised him a place in history but was colored by signs of public ambivalence about his leadership and the nation's political direction.

Clinton's triumph marked a stunning reversal of fortune for a president who less than two years ago was widely reviled and was forced to assert his relevance in the face of the Republican takeover of Congress.

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole issued a concession statement through a spokesman about 6:30 p.m. PST, long before polls had even closed on the West Coast.

"Bob Dole has completed his last political mission with courage and honor," the statement by campaign press secretary Nelson Warfield said. "Even in defeat, he has much to claim in the way of success. Bob Dole led his party in this election representing trust and conservative principles." Dole aides later said that they had released the statement prematurely.

Clinton took a commanding lead in electoral votes from the very start, with first returns and exit polls showing him sweeping much of the East and Midwest. He defeated Dole by 2-1 margins in some Eastern states, according to exit polls.

Clinton captured not only the major states he won four years ago--Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan among them--but also the recent Republican stronghold of Florida. Based on a combination of actual results and projections based on polling, he gained the 270 electoral votes needed for victory when polls closed at 6 p.m. PST in 12 states around the country, including New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But late last night, it remained unclear whether Clinton would gain the 50% of the popular vote that he has sought--with the polls hovering just about the mark much of the evening.

Ross Perot, who ran on the ticket of his self-created Reform Party, appeared to be winning roughly 8% of the popular vote, according to exit polls, and was carrying no states.

Denied Big Mandate

Clinton thus became only the third Democratic president in this century to win consecutive terms, joining the elite company of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But he was denied the overwhelming reelection mandate that the public bestowed on recent Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although scores of congressional races were undecided or remained too close to call as of late last night, it appeared voters declared a preference for a division of party power between the White House and Capitol Hill, effectively checking Clinton's authority. Republicans appeared to be maintaining control of the Senate and the House will be narrowly divided between the parties regardless of who ultimately wins control.

In exit surveys, voters also expressed doubts about Clinton's character and trustworthiness, as they have consistently since 1992.

Exultation Back Home

Still, in Little Rock, Ark., the mood was one of exultation and personal redemption for a man who has been driven by the need for public approval almost from the time he could walk. The floodlit plaza before the Old State House in Little Rock, where Clinton had resided as governor before winning the presidency, was awash in celebrants spilling into the surrounding streets.

Country music bands entertained the throng as they awaited the president's declaration of victory. For Clinton, the public's endorsement may have been sweeter than in 1992, when the largely-unknown Arkansas governor was the astute but lucky recipient of the office to which disgruntled voters felt then-President Bush was no longer entitled.

Early returns and exit poll results showed Clinton beat or was leading Dole in every corner of the nation except the now-reliably Republican Deep South and a narrow band of Great Plains states.

The exit poll interviews and Clinton's victory margin indicated that a narrow majority of voters ultimately could find no compelling reason to unseat a man whom they find flawed but unthreatening, at times weak but always empathetic. The findings seem to validiate that Clinton, more than any other figure of his political generation, has proved at once infuriating and incomparably seductive to the public.

Crisis to Crisis

Dole, although a valiant war hero and a legendary legislator, could not in four attempts at national office--once as then-President Gerald R. Ford's running mate in 1976, twice as an unsuccessful contender for the GOP presidential nomination and now this year as its standard-bearer--mold a coherent message or craft a persona that appealed to a majority of his countrymen.

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