Voters turning out for election to settle control of Congress

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Halfway through a presidential term buffeted by terrorism and divided control of Congress, Americans voted Tuesday in elections that offered both parties tantalizing possibilities for the balance of power but no sure bets.

Voters came out under snowy skies in Wisconsin, light-jacket weather in Texas and North Carolina rain to redraw the battle lines of a Congress sharply divided, to elect 36 governors, reshape legislatures and settle hundreds of local ballot questions.

Suspense was especially thick over the fate of the Senate. At the American Legion hall in Rolla, Mo., Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan cast her ballot and invoked the comeback spirit of a native son in her tough race against Republican Jim Talent.

"I have a Harry Truman feeling about things," she said. "I think it's going to be the Missouri surprise."

Republicans and Democrats each had at least an outside chance of taking control of Congress. But the prospect of more of the same -- the GOP holding the House, Democrats commanding the Senate and President Bush navigating somewhere between the two -- was also very much in play.

Capping a five-day, 17-city push to elect congressional Republicans and governors, Bush voted quietly at the Crawford, Texas, fire station. He offered a thumbs-up and turned it sideways as if to say there was no telling how the day would turn out.

"I'm encouraging all people across this country to vote," he said, before leaving for Washington.

The stakes were high in many ways for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a possible presidential contender in 2004 who fought to preserve his party's de facto Senate majority and ward off a GOP challenge for his state's other Senate seat, held by Tim Johnson.

"I'm very hopeful and somewhat optimistic that this is going to be a very good night for Democrats across the country and especially here in South Dakota," Daschle said after voting.

In the Chelsea district of Manhattan, photographer Jane Schreibman, 52, voted a straight Democratic ticket. "I used to pride myself on voting for the best person," she said. "But I just don't want to give the Republicans any more leverage."

House and Senate control was important as well to Robert Kolodny , 37, a naval reservist in Cleveland who voted Republican and with domestic security with mind. "The main thing was to make sure Republicans get in," he said.

The midterm elections were helping to determine whether Bush and his Democratic opposition can build a record to run on in 2004. For many voters, the issues and candidates they cared most about were closer to home.

In East Syracuse, N.Y., mechanic Joe David, 36, voted for Republican Gov. George Pataki for the third straight election. "He's done a good job as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I think he was a strong leader after 9-11 and I think he has helped make New York a better place to live."

Bush, his popularity high but his ability to translate that into votes for his party unproven, stumped in the Midwest and South to close out a vigorous campaign for Republican candidates. He implored Americans to return Senate control to his party and end the obstructionism he blamed on Democrats.

"That's what I'm looking for -- some allies," Bush told Missouri Republicans on Monday.

Democrats fought to motivate voter turnout in a district by district drive to reclaim control of the House and protect their whisker-thin hold on the Senate.

At stake Tuesday: all 435 House seats, several dozen of which were hotly competitive; 34 Senate seats, of which six to eight looked like tossups; and the 36 governorships. Voters also were choosing state legislatures, now split almost evenly between the parties, and deciding more than 200 ballot initiatives in 40 states.

The first national campaign in the age of terror ended as many campaigns do -- hanging on local concerns and personalities, with debate over pocketbook issues and domestic matters drowning out the few disagreements over national security and even the prospect of a war with Iraq.

Democrats needed a gain of seven seats to win control of the House; polls indicated that would be tough, but conceivable.

Republicans and Democrats each hold 49 seats and there are two independents -- one a reliable Democratic vote.

With memories still fresh of the 2000 Florida balloting fiasco, and more than 200 counties around the country trying new voting equipment, the suspense was not just over winners and losers but whether counters would be able to tell the difference.

Federal observers were dispatched by the hundreds to polling places in 14 states in the most ambitious monitoring of the nation's ballot boxes since the 1960s civil rights era. Florida got the most attention.

The president's party normally loses ground in midterm elections, although Democrats managed to add to their numbers in 1998 even when President Clinton was in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Democrats had effective Senate control going into the campaign, thanks to the defection from the Republican Party last year of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, a Democratic-supporting independent.

But with the Oct. 25 death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash, and the appointment Monday of an independent as a temporary replacement for the upcoming lame duck session, it's now divided 49-49 with two independents.

Republican Norm Coleman and Walter Mondale, the former vice president, senator and presidential candidate who came out of retirement to replace Wellstone on the Democratic ticket, kept campaigning after the polls opened.

"Has anybody slept yet?" Coleman asked whooping supporters after an all-night tour. "We haven't."

Mondale, one of the most recognizable public figures in the state, waited 25 minutes to vote at a Minneapolis church, only to reach the front of the line and be asked by a polling official, "What's your name?"

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