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Elections give GOP reasons to worry

WASHINGTON - This week's elections underscore three trends - all of them worrisome to Republicans.

President Bush's political ills seem contagious. Democrats can win values voters. Republicans have no monopoly on the nation's fast-growing suburbs.

Democrats won governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey while California voters rejected ballot initiatives backed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In St. Paul, Minn., voters ousted Democratic Mayor Randy Kelly a year after he publicly backed Bush for re-election.

"If I were a Democrat," said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, "I would make hay of this."

They were pitching hay at the Democratic National Committee, where party leaders declared Tuesday's results a harbinger for the 2006 midterm contests when more is at stake: 36 governorships, 33 Senate seats and all 435 House seats.

"This portends really well for the future," said Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "Unless George Bush reverses his policies and reaches to the middle you're going to see many more victories like this."

Republicans were especially alarmed at the defeat of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore in Virginia after Bush personally endorsed him Monday. Polls showed the race tight before the president's visit. Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine won by about 6 percentage points.

It's too soon for Democrats to celebrate. Nor should Republicans panic. Bush has a year to rebound politically, and there is no evidence that the president was a major factor in Tuesday's elections. In fact, there is ample reason to believe he wasn't:

•In Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine's easy victory over Republican Doug Forrester, just two of every 10 New Jersey voters said Bush was a factor in their choices, according to an AP-Ipsos survey.

•Some 23 percent of the total Virginia vote came from the 39 most Republican counties. Those same counties accounted for about 22 percent of the vote in the state's last gubernatorial election, which would suggest that turnout was solid despite speculation by GOP leaders that it was down.

•Of the top 10 Republican counties in Virginia, all but two improved their turnout from 2001 by more than the statewide increase of 4 percent.

There were factors far beyond Bush.

New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, and multimillionaire Corzine was heavily favored from the start.

Schwarzenegger has political problems all his own.

St. Paul is a Democratic city, so voters rejecting the Bush-backing Kelly was hardly a surprise.

In Virginia, Kaine ran as a moderate who would continue the policies of popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner. He was helped by the fact that Kilgore was an uneven candidate who allowed Kaine to outflank him on values.

The Democrat's first ad aired on a Christian radio station. The first TV ad he ran this fall highlighted his experience with Catholic missionaries.

Kilgore played into Kaine's hands when he ran an ad that said the Democrat's opposition to the death penalty meant he would not have executed Adolf Hitler. Kaine, a Roman Catholic, pledged to enforce the death penalty despite his personal opposition, using his own ad to shine a spotlight on his religious beliefs.

"I'm not going to change my religious beliefs for one vote," he said.

Republican lawmakers are keeping their distance from Bush. Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman said Bush loves to help congressional candidates, though in some cases the candidates "believe it's better if he didn't."

Ron Fournier has covered politics since 1992.