Despite strong support from President-elect Bill Clinton, Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. lost his reelection bid to Republican Paul Coverdell by a razor-thin margin Tuesday, dashing the Democratic Party's hope of widening its margin in the Senate.
With 99% of the precincts reporting, the 53-year-old Coverdell, a former Peace Corps director, had 630,023 votes, or 51%, to Fowler's 613,846 votes, or 49%.
Coverdell appeared at his campaign headquarters at 11:30 p.m. local time to declare victory. "When this campaign began they said it would be a close one. By George, they predicted that right," he told supporters.
Fowler, 52, finishing his first term in the Senate, seemed to hang on to some slim chance of winning reelection. "I'm not one who likes to drag out things and demand that we wait until the late vote is counted," he said, "but there are a few discrepancies in the count."
But he appeared to acknowledge defeat later when he said, "The other side did a better job of getting their supporters back than we did."
Fowler received late support in the campaign from Clinton and several other well-known Democrats, including Vice President-elect Al Gore, former President Jimmy Carter and actress Kim Basinger.
The hard-fought campaign was characterized by allegations of dishonesty on both sides and by some negative advertising. At stake was not only the Democrats' margin in the Senate, but also the strength of Clinton's influence on the campaign trail.
The best the party can now hope for is to maintain its 57-43 advantage. North Dakota will elect a successor to the late Quentin N. Burdick on Dec. 4, and Democrat Kent Conrad is heavily favored to keep that seat for his party.
Fowler had been considered the underdog after his lackluster campaign in the Nov. 3 general election. He received 49% of the vote in that three-way race, with Coverdell receiving 48%. Georgia law requires that candidates must receive 50% of the vote to win.
"Georgia has said no to the politics of the past," said Oscar Persons, a Coverdell campaign spokesman.
Fowler and Coverdell traded the lead several times in the early returns Tuesday night. With 59% of the precincts reporting, they were virtually tied. But the first returns came mostly from rural precincts, where Fowler had strong support. Returns from the large cities and suburbs came later.
A Mason-Dixon poll last week had shown Fowler favored by 50% to Coverdell's 44%, with 6% undecided. But Coverdell's suburban supporters were considered more likely to return to the polls than Fowler's coalition of rural whites, urban blacks, women and liberals.
Clinton, who received less support in Georgia than Fowler did in the general election, made appearances at two get-out-the-vote gatherings Monday. The race was viewed as symbolically significant as a test of the incoming President's political strength.
In a speech in Macon, Clinton explained why he came: "You know what (Republicans) are saying about this race? If you beat Wyche Fowler it will be easier for us to block everything President-elect Clinton wants to do."
A Fowler win was important, he said, "to break this gridlock in Washington."
After the results were known Tuesday night, James Carville, an architect of Clinton's successful presidential campaign, said in Washington that the President-elect had not gambled away any prestige.
"I think he felt like the risk was to do nothing," Carville said. "If you're going to be President, you've got to fight for something."