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Clinton Rolls to Solid Victory

Elections: President teeters on edge of winning outright majority of the popular vote. Dole calls president 'my opponent and not my enemy' and pledges his support.

November 06, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — 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 his party.

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.

With 79% of the national popular vote counted, Clinton was leading Republican challenger Bob Dole by 49% to 41%. As the vote rolled in, he teetered all night on the edge of his goal of winning the outright majority of the vote that he was denied in his first election, four years ago. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot trailed at 8%.

But while voters returned Clinton to the White House, they denied the Democratic Party control of the Senate and apparently left Republicans in power in the House, ensuring at least two more years of divided government.

Even here, in Clinton's own state, voters turned against the Democrats--voting for their native son as president, but electing a Republican, Tim Hutchison, as the state's first popularly elected Republican senator ever.

Clinton claimed the mantle of victory at 9:06 p.m. PST before the Greek Revival Old State House here, the touchstone of his political life and the scene of so many of his triumphs. The trees were sprinkled with white lights as autumnal leaves drifted down in the mild southern night.

"Today the American people have spoken," the president said, as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea, Vice President Al Gore and his family looked on. "They have affirmed our course; they have told us to go forward."

The president, who ran and won in the middle of the political spectrum, said: "Tonight I proclaim that the vital American center is alive and well. It is the common ground on which we have made our progress."

He paid tribute to Dole and asked the sprawling crowd to applaud his 35 years of service to his country. "On behalf of all Americans, I wish him well and Godspeed."

Gore introduced the president as "a man from Hope who tonight becomes a man for history." He noted that Clinton was one of only six Democrats elected to two presidential terms, adding his name to "history's short list" of great leaders.

The vice president, who makes no secret of his desire to succeed the incumbent, spoke for 15 minutes as he turned the introductory remarks into a chance for a televised prologue to his own expected bid for the White House.

The speeches were concluded with a display of fireworks. The crowd reveled late into the night of Clinton's greatest--and last--electoral triumph.

'Not My Enemy'

Dole conceded at 8:25 p.m. PST in a hotel ballroom in Washington. He said that he had just spoken to Clinton, whom he called "my opponent and not my enemy."

"I wished him well and pledged my support," Dole said, looking surprisingly energetic after an exhausting round-the-clock final four-day push. The crowd of mostly young supporters and volunteers repeatedly chanted, "Thank you, Bob."

As for his future, the veteran of 35 years in public life and four failed tries for national office said: "Tomorrow will be the first day in my life I don't have anything to do. . . . I'm going to sit back for a few days and then I'm going to start standing up for what I think is right for America."

Dole's gracious admission of defeat was true to the reputation he established in the Senate, where he was known as a tough partisan fighter but a gentleman always. But in a last reminder of the chaos that hobbled his campaign all year, his press secretary mistakenly issued--and then quickly retracted--a statement of concession earlier in the evening, an hour and a half before the polls closed in the West.

Ahead at Start

Clinton took a commanding lead in electoral votes from the very start, winning virtually every Eastern and Midwestern state, several by more than 20 points. His strong early lead continued across the country, culminating in California, where early returns and a Los Angeles Times exit poll showed Clinton winning easily.

Clinton captured not only the major states he won four years ago--Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan among them--but also the Republican stronghold of Florida. And Clinton won Arizona, which last supported a Democratic presidential candidate in 1948. Based on a combination of actual results and projections based on polling, Clinton 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.

Perot, who ran on the ticket of his self-created Reform Party while accepting $29 million in public election funds, carried no states. The Texas billionaire conceded at 7:45 p.m., saying that his supporters should demand reform of the system of campaign finance that both parties had abused.

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