Two of Washington's brightest, most intriguing political figures, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), took a long, hard look into the abyss Tuesday night and both came back from the edge just a little bit humbled.
Bradley, a cerebral loner frequently mentioned as a Democratic presidential contender in 1992, nearly saw his rising political star crash to earth as New Jersey voters used him as a whipping boy for the higher taxes imposed by Gov. Jim Florio (D). Though Bradley survived, he only narrowly defeated a cash-strapped and little known GOP challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, 51 to 49 percent.
And Gingrich, the leader of the Republican right in the House, where he serves as the GOP whip and aspires to be his party's top leader two years from now, ended the night only about 1,000 votes ahead of Democratic challenger David Worley. A recount is expected in what Gingrich called a "sobering" political experience.
If there is a lesson to be learned from these two events, it is that no elected official, not even those with national constituencies and agendas, can overlook the need to pay close attention to home base and those local issues that frequently drive the electorate more than the great affairs of state.
Many Democrats said any damage to Bradley would be transitory. "It's like making an error in the first game of the World Series," one Democratic strategist said. "Everybody sees it but you have six games left and he has every chance of being a star in the succeeding six games."
Added Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown: "I can't imagine that anybody who might consider running for president is going to be asked, 'Well, what percentage did you win by the last election you won?' "
Bradley's Senate reelection campaign, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said, was transformed "into a referendum on the Florio administration" and New Jersey voters struck back at Bradley because "there was simply no other way to express themselves."
But Republicans said that Bradley could be more deeply wounded. "Senator Bradley got the scare of his political life," said Charles Black, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "With a 20 to 1 advantage in money, he barely squeaked through with a win. . . . That doesn't exactly look like presidential timber in New Jersey. . . . "
Bradley appeared to err in his campaign, several observers said, by never taking a position on Florio's extremely unpopular package of tax increases. And at the same time, he largely stood on the sidelines during the weeks-long congressional debate over a $500 billion deficit-reduction package.
Bradley "ran on his celebrity status," said Stephen Salmore, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "He never really spoke to the issues. He refused to comment on the most important issue in the state, Florio's tax hike. He was viewed as copping out."
The wakeup call that New Jersey voters delivered to Bradley, one New Jersey political figure said, might be just the tonic needed for a centrist Democrat used to "blurring the distinctions with Republicans and avoiding taking any controversial positions." Bradley, he added, "may be the better for this experience. He acknowledged he learned during the campaign there is some deep economic pain and that people are tremendously frustrated."
Gingrich, the intellectual leader of his party's conservative wing in the House who became the second-ranking Republican during the 101st Congress, also got an abrupt reminder that voters in the 6th Congressional District of Georgia do not automatically appreciate having a national figure for their local congressman.
The voters, said Gingrich in a National Public Radio interview yesterday morning, sent him a message: "I ought to come home and pay attention."
Gingrich was nearly unseated after 12 years in office by Worley, a 32-year-old lawyer who ran almost 20 percentage points behind the incumbent during their first race in 1988. Though ignored by national Democrats, Worley hammered away at Gingrich as someone who had forgotten his district's concerns, voted for a congressional pay raise and waffled on higher taxes.
Gingrich admitted that local issues, such as the protracted Eastern Airlines strike that affected thousands of workers at the Atlanta airport in his district, had aided Worley's long shot effort. "Our basic theme was Newt Gingrich has forgotten you," Worley said.
The question facing Gingrich, if he prevails in the recount, is how it will affect his influence among House Republicans, who have been increasingly receptive to his take-no-prisoners style of confronting the Democratic leadership and hard-right conservative rhetoric.
"He's going to really have to watch his p's and q's," said Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But at least one Democratic strategist in the House said Gingrich's position actually could be enhanced by this election.
"He is the most visible symbol of a cadre of very conservative House Republicans who not only are unbowed in the face of the election results but feel validated by them. Their conviction is that George Bush hurt the Republican Party on the budget and taxes."