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Victory in California Calms GOP

In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley (R) easily dispatched Roy S. Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who was removed from office for placing a monument to the Ten Commandants in the court building. Riley will face Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who trumped former governor Don Siegelman.

But it was the California special election that attracted the most attention in Washington, as an early test of whether immigration, corruption and other issues may affect the balance of power on Capitol Hill. Busby's late gaffe on illegal immigrants -- she made comments in which she seemed to invite them to help her campaign -- in a district highly sensitive to the issue seemed to halt her momentum over the campaign's final weekend and brought private criticism from top Democratic strategists. To take back the House, Democrats will have to defeat a substantial number of experienced Republican incumbents.

More worrisome to Democrats was the fact that Busby's total hardly budged the 44 percent that Kerry won in the district in 2004. "If we can't improve upon Kerry's numbers in these congressional districts in this climate, we've got a big problem," said one strategist, who asked not to be identified in order to give a candid assessment of the results.

For Republicans, yesterday brought a brief respite from bad news. Had the San Diego race gone the other way, it would have triggered near-panic inside a party that has grown increasingly nervous about the voters' sour mood. But Democrats insisted there is no way Republicans can devote similar resources to all the other competitive races in November.

Amy Walter, who charts House races for the Cook Report, said that, at a minimum, Tuesday's outcome denied Democrats a major psychological boost. "This just took what would have been on the front page of every newspaper -- 'Democratic tsunami heading for Washington' -- off the front pages," she said. "You can't overstate how important that is."

Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg called the results in California "a bit of a downer" for the Democrats because Busby could not woo more independents and Republicans to vote for her. But he said the lessons from California may not apply to districts where House Republicans depend on Democratic votes to win.

Saying that Republicans "can't be naive about what happened," he added, "The Democrats are still searching for evidence the wave is going to hit."

Rhodes Cook, another independent analyst, said that special elections sometimes forecast future trends, but not always, and that he is cautious about reading too much into Tuesday's California results.

Cook said he sees conflicting signs in Tuesday's results in California. Low turnout, he said, was a possible sign that Democratic voters are not as mobilized as party leaders hope. But the fact that a number of House incumbents in California won their primaries with reduced percentages against weak opposition provided additional evidence of an anti-incumbent mood in the electorate, which could hurt the party in power more.


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