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Clinton Rolls to Solid Victory

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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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.

“We’ve got to keep the pressure on,” he said in a statement at his Dallas headquarters.

Denied Big Mandate

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

And independent voters, who backed Clinton heavily over Dole, swung over to the Republicans in the congressional balloting.

Still, in the State House crowd, 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.

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

The exit poll interviews and Clinton’s victory margin indicated that a 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.

His campaign this year appeared to lurch from crisis to crisis, frequently leaving Dole a lonely captain at the rudder of a crippled ship.

He culminated this campaign with a frantic 96-hour trek across the country. But as with every other political ploy he tried--such as resigning from his Senate seat in June to run as “just a man"--his last-minute marathon failed to shake the solid lead in the polls that Clinton held throughout the year.

Dole voted in his hometown of Russell, Kan., at noon and then flew to his adopted home of Washington, where he wistfully watched the end of his electoral career.

Even before the day’s results were known, Dole was at pains to emphasize that he was serene in his acceptance of the voters’ verdict.

“We’ve had a long, uplifting journey across America,” Dole said in Russell, standing outside the house where he grew up in the small prairie town. “We’ve given our all with a full heart.”

He added: “We’ve had a good ride. Win or lose, you always think of things you might have done. My view was, is, will be: you look ahead; you don’t look back. Whatever happens, you keep looking ahead and we’ll start doing that sometime tonight or tomorrow.”

The president’s dissection of Dole combined a brilliant use of the powers of the presidency with Clinton’s unmatched talents as a campaigner. Political experts could not point to a single major error in his campaign, which was marked by a cornucopia of small promises delivered with the earnestness of a pious pamphleteer.

He promised to make life easier for the “soccer moms” who became the emblematic swing-voter targets of 1996 by expanding the family leave law of 1993, urging curfews and school uniforms for teenagers, expanding hospital stays for childbirth, regulating sex and violence on television, cracking down on cigarette advertising aimed at children.

Solid Edifice

These low-cost, low-risk proposals built up, brick by brick, an unassailable edifice that Dole could not succeed in weakening. Clinton never left his flanks exposed by drawing attention to the issues that still sunder the nation--abortion, racial injustice, economic inequality and America’s obligations as the globe’s mightiest power.

While the president can rightly declare that he has been given a mandate to govern, the uplifting but unspecific nature of his campaign probably has narrowed the political space in which he can operate.

Clinton will begin his second term with his freedom of action seemingly limited by a closely divided Congress, as well as the shadow of scandal looming over the Oval Office.

He has committed to putting the nation on a path to a balanced budget by the year 2002 and pledged to assure the solvency of Medicare, both of which will put severe restraints on his ability to use public money to address social ills.

And the scandals--from the long-running Whitewater affair to new revelations about Democratic fund-raising irregularities--will keep Clinton and his legion of lawyers preoccupied for the next year, and likely beyond.

The shape of the 1996 campaign was set before the year began, with an epic confrontation between Clinton and the Republican Congress, led by the irrepressible but tactically challenged House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Tuesday’s result was in many ways an anticlimax. Clinton’s approval rating passed 50% in the wake of the budget war and never slipped.

Dole, by contrast, had to battle through the winter to stave off surprisingly strong primary challenges from the conservative populist Patrick J. Buchanan and rosy multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes, a political neophyte.

Dole depleted his primary treasury defeating his rivals, emerging from the winter battles scarred and worn to face a $20-million Clinton advertising campaign in the spring.

Torrents of Money

And then there was money, torrents of it, shattering all previous records and exposing the futility of the current laws designed to govern its raising and spending. Clinton has vowed to clean up the political fund-raising stables--after his final election--but he may become ensnared in investigations into whether he and his buckrakers violated the laws to fund the most expensive presidential campaign in history.

But with the nation prosperous and at peace, such ethical issues were muted and the stakes were seemingly small. There was little suspense, and less passion.

It came down to a choice between two men--one, the perfect exemplar of his generation, garrulous, self-absorbed, indulgent, an empathic politician who appeared to believe every thing he said and tried to touch every last voter; the other, a man out of time who promised to return America to an imagined Golden Age, a stoic who never became comfortable with the conventions of vote-grubbing.

Peterson reported from Little Rock and Broder from Los Angeles.

ELECTIONS ’96

* KEYS TO VICTORY: A growing economy and a manageable world scene contributed to President Clinton’s comeback victory. A12

* EAGER VOTERS: The Southland’s newest citizens went to the polls eagerly. Many said they hoped to defeat Prop. 209. A3

* PANETTA’S FUTURE: The chief of staff will soon announce his plans to leave the White House, aides say. A13

* TV COVERAGE: An election night bugaboo returned--network projections based on exit polls, reports critic Howard Rosenberg. A28

National coverage: A10-11, A14-16, A18-19, A28

State-by-state roundup: A20-A21

State, local coverage: A3, A22-A23, B2

State and local return: A24-A25

Internet results, https://www.latimes.com


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